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Successful Aging: Greedy? No, facts show the older generation keeps on giving

I recently saw the term “greedy geezer” used to refer to seniors. I am 69 years old and found the term quite offensive. I always thought of my generation as givers. Am I correct that this is still true?

Dear S.N.

You are correct; older adults indeed are contributors.

The term you referred to, “greedy geezer, is highly offensive whether written or spoken. Here’s a little history. In 1988, the New Republic magazine featured an infamous cover story with that title. The line drawing on the cover was of an angry and scowling older person. The feature article was anti-entitlement in nature. It strongly suggested that older people in America were getting more than their share of the pie (Social Security and Medicare) and were enjoying their later years in sunny retirement places with lots of money to spend. All of this was at the expense of others.

The article ignored the fact that not all older people are well-off financially. It ignored the reality of economic diversity. The approach was repeated in the U.S. News & World Report in 1999. And yes, occasionally we see it today.

Older adults fuel something called the “longevity economy” valued at $7.1 trillion in annual economic activity. According to a 2016 AARP report, it represents the sum of all economic activities serving the needs of Americans over age 50. These include the products and services older adults purchase directly and the additional economic actions this spending generates from 106 million people, both older workers and retirees.

Rather than looking at older adults as an economic burden on society, they need to be viewed as an economic power. The AARP report notes, “… these older people will continue to fuel economic activity far longer than past generations had, and those born after them will continue the trend.”

Let’s look more closely at that $7.1 trillion-dollar figure that older adults contribute to our economy. The 50-plus cohort is responsible for injecting about $4.6 trillion a year in spending on consumer goods and services including health care, into the overall economy. That figure rises to $7.1 trillion when we add the effects of this direct spending as it circulates through the economy providing employment for nearly 100 million Americans. The longevity economy is a huge source for charitable giving, contributing nearly $100 billion annually to a variety of causes, representing nearly 70 percent of all charitable donations from individuals.

Clearly, older adults are not greedy geezers. They are an economic asset as well as a big plus to our society in volunteering their time and talents. About one out of four older persons volunteer with about 45 percent directing their time to religious organizations. (Note: organizations may report different frequencies of volunteer activities.)

In some cases, their volunteer time provides exceptional opportunities for individuals to apply their skills, knowledge and experience with a commitment and desire to make a difference, to have an impact. These folks have created an encore career, one that embraces purpose, passion, sometimes a paycheck while giving back for the greater good.

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNSC), the federal agency that administers Foster grandparents, Senior Companions and RSVP reports the value of senior volunteers to the U.S. economy as an estimated $77 billion.

Here are a few more statistics to make the point. In 2015-2016, about 21 million older adults contributed 3.3 billion hours of service in their communities. The services most often contributed were collecting and distributing food, fundraising and providing professional or management assistance to nonprofit organizations. This likely is a conservative estimate of time and value contributed by older adults since there are many other volunteer organizations beyond the CNSC.

S.N., Thank you for your important question. Older adults unequivocally are a valued asset to our American economy and our society. I rest my case.

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