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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Establish secure future for all generations

The Columbian
Published: June 2, 2023, 6:03am

From the files of self-delusion, there is a popular saying that “60 is the new 50.” Unless, of course, the speaker is closer to 50 years of age, in which case 50 is the new 40. The point is that we like to pretend we are ageless, creaky joints and aching backs to the contrary.

As much as we try to deny it, the fact is that we are getting older — individually and collectively. Data recently culled from the 2020 U.S. Census reveals that the median age in all 39 Washington counties increased between 2010 and 2020; the number of people 65 and older increased sharply, while the number of children under 5 declined.

Statewide, the 65-and-older population increased 63 percent during the decade, while the overall population saw growth of 17 percent. In Clark County, the 65-and-older population increased 85 percent.

None of this is surprising. Birth rates are lower than they were during the post-World War II baby boom, and more boomers are reaching retirement age. Meanwhile, improved health care and environmental regulations have increased life expectancy for Americans (although there has been a COVID-related downturn that will impact demographics in future decades).

Politically, the issues of an aging nation are obvious. One involves debates over Social Security and how to pay for the system with a relatively small number of workers supporting a record number of retirees. Another involves the way in which baby boomers are clinging to political power.

But smaller policy questions surrounding an aging nation will play a role in the country’s future, ranging from housing to transportation to health care. In 2019, the Clark County Commission on Aging focused on transportation issues for local seniors, with The Columbian reporting: “Lack of connectivity was a reoccurring theme among the experts who spoke before the commission.”

Connectivity within a community, however, is important not only for seniors. Aging does not begin at 60 or 50 or 40; the social and financial and security that allows for a dignified old age is ingrained in decisions that begin in childhood. For decades, the sheer heft of the baby boomer generation has dominated policy decisions, leaving subsequent generations with a sense of insecurity not felt in the United States since before World War II.

Consider somebody who is between 25 and 30. They have lived through two major economic downturns; they have survived a pandemic; they are saddled with unprecedented student loans; they are finding it more difficult to purchase a home than their parents.

As The Atlantic wrote about young adults in the early days of the COVID pandemic: “They have smaller savings accounts than prior generations. They have less money invested. They own fewer houses to refinance or rent out or sell. They make less money, and are less likely to have benefits like paid sick leave.” On top of that, they are thrust into the middle of a child care crisis and are destined to inherit a climate crisis.

Many a think piece has been written about baby boomers and how we can help them age gracefully. Indeed, those are important questions. But we should not forget that their generation benefited from abundant housing, the generational wealth their parents accumulated through the G.I. Bill and the security provided by corporate pensions.

While helping an aging population enjoy their lives is essential, policymakers must recognize that a secure and prosperous future for younger generations will have a larger impact on the ultimate direction of our nation.