Jeff Goldsmith, The Long Baby Boom (The John Hopkins University Press 2008)
If Jeff Goldsmith had his way, I’d be out of a job. Personally, I am rather happy that a 65 year old professor decided to go against Goldsmith’s wisdom and to retire (something the removal of the mandatory retirement age in Ontario did not oblige him to do). But in The Long Baby Boom: An Optimistic Vision for a Graying Generation, Jeff Goldsmith tells us that my own gain was a societal loss. When this professor retired we lost his experience and wisdom; we lost his taxes and his continued involvement in the economy; and he lost the continued health and personal benefits that come along with continued work. Of course, I got a job and he got to retire. But I would say that wouldn’t I?
Goldsmith’s book is another addition to the ever-popular genre of Baby Boomer studies, those works that explore the demographic reality of – and the subsequent cultural fascination with – the surge in North American birth rates that followed the Second World War. Like the most famous Canadian work of the genre, Boom, Bust and Echo (which is now an industry unto itself), The Long Baby Boom concerns itself not with the youthful experience of this generation but with the economic and political ramifications of its aging population.
We ought to be used to the fixation on the boomers by now. As children, the boomers helped shape the culture of domesticity and family of the 1950s – and the consumer culture that went along with it; as young adults, they created a youthful culture of rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s (even if most did not actively participate in it); in the 1980s, we watched shows like ‘thirty-something’ as boomers dealt with the angst of finally growing up; and now, as boomers drift through their fifties, we get to read books about how they are going to revolutionize the way we age.
Why should we be concerned? For Goldsmith the answer is simple. He argues that the current way we understand the coming demographic changes is far too negative. He blames this on those he calls ‘catastropharians.’ These are the doomsayers who predict that fiscal and social turmoil will result as aging boomers become a burden on social welfare programs and the economy. Such catastropharians over-emphasise the negative repercussions of the aging generation of boomers, he argues, and underestimate the capacity of governments and society to find solutions. That there are real challenges he admits. But ‘the vision of the baby boomers as a gigantic societal albatross is a myth in the making.’ (xiii)
Against this more negative tradition, Goldsmith offers a more optimistic view. At its centre, Goldsmith’s vision is about growth. The essential problem is one of classical economics. If the baby boomers remove themselves from the economy, the economy will slow down if others don’t take up the slack. If, at the same time, those boomers draw on social welfare programs that drain money from the economy, and taxes from those still actively engaged in the economy, then the problem becomes worse still. This is the catastropharian thesis.
But Goldsmith says we can fix these problems. How? The answer is distinctly American: seek out new frontiers of work, health and social policy. Go west, young man, go west.
In 1893, the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner put words to a persistent American belief in the benefits of frontier society even as that frontier was closing. What would happen to American society, some feared, now that it was robbed of its main source of productive tension, even initiative and democratic individualism? What would the United States be like without a frontier? Of course, even as Turner worried about this, American governments proceeded to find other frontiers, in the Caribbean, the Pacific and Latin America. But perhaps even more importantly, the United States continued to seek growth in the frontier that mattered most: the economy. Continued productive growth could provide hope for younger sons, homes for new immigrants, and dreams for aspiring entrepreneurs. This was not purely an American ideal, but there was and is something distinctly American in the pervasive belief in the virtues of growth for growth’s sake.
More than a century later the aging boomers threaten to close even that frontier. Or do they? Goldsmith thinks not. The aging of the boomers isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity. The major social welfare state programs – Social Security and Medicare – are, he claims, outdated. Built to meet the needs of the generation that fought depression and war, these programs need to be overhauled. The aging of the boomers gives Americans that need and that opportunity. Retirement at age 65 is an outdated concept. Goldsmith instead urges a ‘pro-work’ approach to later life. The government’s role ought to be to not only allow but to encourage boomers to work well past this traditional retirement age. And why not? According to Goldsmith these boomers are going to live longer. New medical technologies and breakthroughs are going to make everyone physically healthier. The economic benefits are clear. And personally the boomers will benefit by staying engaged and active. The ‘Golden Years’ version of retirement, he argues, where the elderly hibernate in enclosed communities, playing endless games of bridge, was never healthy in the first place. Better to open up new possibilities for the future. Of course, Goldsmith acknowledges that some people will actually want to retire at 65 or even earlier. And he says that they should be allowed to do so. Their position can be taken up by new immigrants providing labour and skill and a sufficient workforce to pick up any slack in the system.
It is all so optimistic, so simple. Who could fault this vision? Well, anyone working in the public sector, for a start. This is just under 20% of Canada’s workforce. If the professor in my department had not given up his job, there would not have been one available for me. The public sector, no matter what kinds of new management buzzwords might be used to describe it, does not and cannot behave like the private sector. Older workers staying in that job market means fewer jobs.
But even more importantly, this frenzied search for more and more economic growth overlooks one vast skeleton that Goldsmith keeps locked in the closet: the environment. A blurb on the back cover advertises the book’s ‘bold and controversial’ ideas. Maybe in the narrow world of retirement planning specialists it is indeed bold and controversial. But what Goldsmith is essentially urging is what we already do. He may want to tinker with American versions of public old age pensions and health care but he is not offering much that is new. The solution is more economic growth. What is wrong with this picture?
The biggest challenge in the contemporary world is not dealing with the Baby Boom; it is about dealing with the destructive potential of environmental catastrophe. To deal with the demographic problem, Goldsmith urges policies that will only worsen the larger and more pressing problem of the environment. More of the same kind of growth means more of the same environmental destruction. Focused so intently on his renovation plans, Goldsmith has not registered the demotion notice posted on the front gate.
How does Canada enter into any of this? It doesn’t, at least not directly. Goldsmith writes about the United States and makes international comparisons only in a few instances: that is, only when they make the United States look good. So a ‘pro-work’ approach will work in America because Americans love to work. They work longer and harder than other nations in the world, especially the indolent Europeans. (Perhaps Canada could be included here.) This makes Americans more productive. It gives them an edge. It also means, although Goldsmith does not say this, that Americans can’t enjoy as much paid vacation, that many American mothers have to rush back to work when their babies are just weeks old, and many more things besides.
His book is also heavily concerned with the particularities of the medical system in the United States. Here too he makes passing reference to what he sees as overly costly programs in Europe. But again he does this only to rule out alternatives – i.e. a proper fully-funded public health care system. One striking irony is the way he frequently cites a survey finding that a majority of Americans plan to continue working past 65 and do not plan to retire early. He interprets this as a sign that American boomers want to keep working. When he later mentions that lack of health care coverage was the largest reason why Americans wanted to continue working, he entirely misses the connection or the significance.
Of course for many who read this journal and this review, the reasons to continue working will likely be more positive. Professors at the end of their career, at their highest salaries, have plenty of good reasons to continue working. They can keep making good money, ensure even higher pensions for when they do retire, and continue to teach and to research in the supportive environment of a university they know. Academics can continue to work longer because their situations are entirely unlike the factory worker literally worn to the bone by his years on the line, or the secretary crippled by arthritis or RSI, or even just people who hate their jobs. Most Canadian provinces and territories now make it illegal for employers to dismiss employees at the age of 65. This, it is suggested, is age discrimination.
Few seem willing to acknowledge the other side of the coin. If it discriminates against 66 year-olds to force them into retirement, what does it do to a 30 year old academic living on the margins of university life? Although this person’s prospects may be better than the McDonald’s employee, they may both be making a similar salary and both find it too expensive to visit the dentist. What should we call forcing someone to live for 1 or 2 or 4 or 5 more years before they can get a full time tenure-track academic job? How does one measure the loss of experience or skills or leadership that retirement is supposed to involve against the struggles of young academics living on scanty wages and short-term contracts, perhaps struggling to raise a family under these conditions but more likely putting off starting a family entirely? These are tough comparisons but surely they are the ones that we ought to be making. The university is not Goldsmith’s version of an ever-growing American economy. There are a limited number of jobs. Those at the top-end of the scale who adopt his ‘pro-work’ approach to life directly keep jobs out of the hands of the young.
If we could acknowledge this problem in the university it might help to realize that the problem is more widespread. Infinite growth is not, as just about any expert on climate change can tell us, sustainable. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the experience of employment in the public sector and the universities. Goldsmith’s vision is for more and more growth. The potential for the aging boomers to limit growth is the main problem he sets out to solve. Yet, surely such a strategy is – or at least should be – outdated. As Turner foretold, the frontier did come to an end. It may not have happened in the 1890s but it is certainly happening now. The aging of the boomers is an opportunity to think about and plan a society in which problems don’t keep getting put off by expansion elsewhere. A sustainable economic and social policy is not a luxury or a utopian fantasy, it is a necessity. That’s not a generation outlook, it’s a global reality.
Christopher Dummitt is Assistant Professor of History at Trent University