Have you seen the short, unsensational YouTube video with the graphs of wealth distribution in the US, comparing what Americans believe the wealth distribution is, what they believe it should (in fairness) be, and what it actually is? You should: it’s both eye-popping and sobering, and I’ve linked it at the bottom of this post. For the moment, the takeaway is that one percent of the population owns fifty percent of the nation’s stocks, bonds, and mutual funds—effectively, the nation’s wealth, and, more importantly, the tools to greater personal wealth. The figures are verifiable, and almost five million people have seen the video.
It’s no secret that the middle class is shrinking and doing less well. Nor is it surprising: in a society whose economic model resembles nothing so much as a wealth transfer system for lining the pockets of the rich and near-rich, and where democracy is patently and unashamedly for sale, the American rags-to-riches dream, though still attainable, is only going to work for a tiny minority. For the rest, it’s the soup kitchen or multiple part-time jobs, with few or no benefits.
There are, at present count, somewhere around 600,000 homeless in America. To house them all in “efficiency units,” small but well-appointed 200- and 300-square-foot housing modules of the sort now being built for real rents in places like New York and San Francisco, could probably be done for around $35Bn. The cost of one and a half Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, that’s really not a lot; in fact, a few of the very wealthiest Americans, certainly any pair of the first ten or so, could cover the whole sum and still have enough left over to live beyond most people’s wildest dreams.
Stay with me, because this isn’t about the anonymous homeless multitude: it’s going to get personal. I’m going to be talking about you and me.
Unfortunately, the ranks of the homeless in the US (and elsewhere, for that matter) are likely to grow rather than diminish. Despite the delusional optimism of articles like the recent one in the Huffington Post which suggests that the post-war/baby boomer generation is about to reshape the social order, when you’re playing against a stacked deck the chances of that happening (without violent social upheaval, and none of us wants that) are close to zero. Instead, as this generation enters what would once have been the Golden Years—now more like the Tin Years—a society that promotes eternal youth and beauty is going to have to deal with the grim reality of its aging population.
Consider. A large proportion of the boomer generation, the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, has nowhere near the savings to sustain them, even if they don’t require expensive healthcare—which a great many of them will. Ask a financial planner today how much you should have set aside for when you retire, and they’ll tell you anywhere between one and two million dollars.
Yes, million. Because whereas we once had the decency—thanks to widespread smoking and simpler medicine—to keel over within a decade or so of retirement, we boomers are living an average of fifteen years longer than our grandparents. To make matters worse, those of us who don’t have savings or families that can afford the $4,000 or more a month to park us in some generic assisted living facility are, to put it mildly, in trouble.
This is a crisis as serious as any asteroid strike or tsunami for those affected—and that’ll be tens of millions of people in the US alone. Vast numbers of people are living on razor-thin safety margins, and their kids are likely doing even worse. Unless you’re one of the dwindling group who’ve carefully set money by and own a good home, had the luck to father a doctor, have a USPS pension or one from the golden age of GM, and aren’t bankrupted by healthcare costs before Medicare kicks in, well…as entitlement programs begin to pop their rivets under the strain of a huge demographic bulge—the majority of whose constituents suffer at least one chronic disease—your future is looking rocky.
I know, this is a grim topic. But it’s important, not least because the vast majority of us will be affected, but because there’s so damn little straight talking about it. Nobody wants to look the issue in the eye, let alone do anything about it.
And it gets worse.
However unhappy our circumstances of our dotage may be—and I truly hope they aren’t, and that your sunset years are happy ones—the combination of a predatory healthcare system and the tyranny of people who think their beliefs and moral values trump ours conspire to deny us even the degree of compassion we afford our pets, namely a gentle, painless exit. Unless you live in one of the very few places (such as Oregon) where you have at least a notional right to death with dignity, you’re stuck with being kept alive by heroic measures long after your sell-by date whether you like it or not. Don’t assume that your DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order will make a damn bit of difference, either, because the realities of the ER are such that unless it’s waved in the doc’s face by a firm and clear-minded friend or relative, you’re going to be kept alive whether you like it or not.
What’s to be done? Well, you can vote, for one thing. You can lobby, write your congressperson, and make your voice heard. You can talk to people and spread the meme. If you’re a writer, you can write about these issues*. If you have some savings, you can consider getting together with a few friends or couples, pooling your resources, and buying a large house, even setting up some sort of elder commune, and taking care of one another, an idea whose time has certainly come and which, correctly planned and executed, can offer a viable model. But whatever you do, don’t just put off thinking about this stuff because it’s unpleasant.
I wish you well. I wish you a golden old age surrounded by loving family and friends, in a better world. It could happen. But it’ll only happen if we have the will to bring it about.
The video of US wealth inequality can be found here. Watch it.
*My own thriller/adventure novel, “Sutherland’s Rules,” despite being a rousing, upbeat romp, features older protagonists dealing with their own declining years.
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