Thomas Wolfe was right. These days are lit by lightning and nothing is changing faster than the economy. Seniors are seeing economic patterns that have served them well shifting, with even greater changes either certain or possible.
One segment of political leaders is intent upon rolling back involvement by the federal government in all social programs. The pattern of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is the goal. This would include Social Security, Medicare, the Older Americans Act and Medicare, which serves many poorer seniors, especially those in nursing homes. It is impossible to predict whether or not this movement will be successful. Seniors who vote can influence the answer.
Another proposal is to privatize Social Security and Medicare. Even if they are not privatized, there is a problem with long-term funding. One solution — which is already in place — is to push back the age for retirement with full benefits. Given the fact that many people are still able and willing to work at the current retirement age, time for retirement might be pushed back even further. Another possibility would be to increase employee/employer contributions to FICA — no doubt unpopular to many, but it is "bullet-biting" time. Controlling the cost of health care would remove some of the stress on Medicare.
Financial security in retirement and in being able to afford health insurance depends upon savings and retirement benefits provided by employers. The "benefits package" can be almost as important as salary in job considerations. Employer-provided retirement plans or employer contributions to such things as 401K savings can lay the foundation for post-retirement security. Even when bolstered by Social Security, these might not be enough to meet the demands of later life.
Staying in the same occupation for 40 years or longer seems like a dreary prospect to many people. The answer is to have more than one career. Those who work in a system that allows retirement after 20 years — usually with partial compensation — often transition to some other line of work. Others become self-employed. Some complete 30 years in one career and still are eager to launch into something else. If the new venture provides good compensation and other benefits, it is possible to use retirement pay for personal savings among other things and to remain challenged and satisfied while working longer.
Historically, most of the people in this country have not been serious money savers on their own. They have been urged to spend and they do. This economy is driven by consumption, by desire, not need. A massive advertising "industry" makes it work. Producers of goods and services spend billions hiring an army of "mind benders" to get the rest of us to spend far more billions to buy their products, whether we need them or not. Most of us are as gullible as the pied piper's rats. Not only do we not save, we are in personal debt that overshadows the national debt.
Would it be smarter to save more and buy less or at least pay less when buying? Yes, of course, but the ego gets involved — muscle cars/trucks, brand-name whatevers, the latest smart phone, vacations to too far away places that are more costly and tiring than to places nearby. When that money is needed to hire people to do the things we can no longer do as old folks or to pay hospital bills not covered by Medicare or insurance, we can wish it back, but we cannot call it back.
There are other changes that challenge seniors. One area is merchandising. It affects accessibility, personal service and community services. Malls and super stores have driven most locally-owned stores out of business. They might increase retail vitality in one town while drying up business in smaller towns for miles around. Often, there is a net loss in employment. SPLOST taxes take money out of the smaller towns. A diminished property tax base and rising demand for local services can raise taxes and shift the burden to homeowners, many of whom are old folks living on fixed incomes.
Personal service. Mom and pop stores might have been more expensive, but their owners knew their customers — their needs, preferences and person peculiarities. If they did not have what a customer wanted, they could get it soon or even suggest another place in town to buy it. Employees at mall stores and super stores do not depend on having a particular customer return. Some are very helpful, but some are not, and too many seem to be unable to help when asked. Perhaps the constant flood of advertising circulars keeps people coming back anyway.
Online shopping is a sea-change as dramatic as the creation of shopping malls and it bids fair to kill off many of them. It is predicted that 40 percent of the malls in this country will close by 2050, perhaps even more. It is convenient — commerce by computer 24 hours a day with purchases delivered quickly to one's home or business. There is a problem with front porch thieves, but it is so quick and easy. The range of choices is huge and the price is often better than anything that can be found locally.
Some of us old folks are not so enthusiastic about internet commerce. I like to see it, touch it, try it on, ask questions about it. Yes, e-commerce return policies are usually flexible, but it is a hassle to pack it up and get it shipped back to sender. Face it, most of us are not adroit computer users. Millions of seniors do not own computers or credit cards. What will they do when local access fades away?
Clearly, seniors need to look for a bridge over these troubled waters.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.