Another recent report projects that the number of people with Alzheimer's disease will nearly double every 20 years, putting enormous strain on elder-care resources and families. On a practical level, society isn't well organized for the aged. Many cities and suburbs, for example, lack sidewalks and efficient public-transportation systems to enable seniors to get around when they can no longer drive, points out John Rowe, a health policy expert at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. "We've got a lot of work to do," he says.
New careers for seniors. Priority No. 1, the experts agree, is keeping older workers in the workforce. "About two thirds of Americans today retire from their principal jobs when they're 62, the first year they can get partial Social Security benefits," says John Rother, executive vice president for policy at AARP. The economic downturn, meanwhile, has tripled the number of unemployed workers ages 55 to 64 over the past two years, compared with a doubling in the overall number. This trend, if not reversed, could push Social Security to the brink. The Congressional Budget Office had already predicted, before the recession, that the program would be doling out more than it took in by 2020, which would empty out the trust fund and cause a drastic cut in benefits by 2043.
Solutions may come in the form of an increased payroll tax from a rate of 12.4 percent to 13.7 percent, which the CBO recommends, or a further rise in the minimum age for full benefits, possibly to 70 or beyond for those just entering the workforce. Neither option is likely to be popular with taxpayers, which may be why policymakers are focused instead on the carrot approach: enticing citizens to work longer and businesses to let them. Arizona started a "mature workforce" initiative five years ago to help seniors make job connections; more than 40 companies have so far agreed to hire and train those over 50. Last April, Congress passed legislation to establish "encore fellowships" for retirees looking to retool for second careers in government and the nonprofit sector, with a yearly salary of $22,000. A model of this program was launched a year ago in Silicon Valley; computer manufacturers pay stipends to retired employees exploring public-service careers. "I was in high-tech for 25 years and really enjoyed it, but it just wasn't as exciting as it used to be," says Gina Cassinelli, 52, of Redwood City, Calif., who took early retirement in 2007 and is now doing a marketing fellowship at a nonprofit that provides after-school apprenticeship programs for kids. "I want to give back to the community but didn't know how to make connections with nonprofits. So this has been a huge benefit for me." Also available: Encore Careers, a free job-finding website, and Encore College, a community college initiative offering expedited coursework to retirees seeking new public-service careers.
The financial perks of a longer working life go without saying. But a recent University of Maryland study suggests, too, that seniors who remain in the labor force, even in part-time jobs, maintain their cognitive abilities, physical dexterity, and social connections much better than those who choose to retire while they're still healthy. "Most Americans like their work, finding it a source of their identity and meaning in life," points out Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. "Golfing is fun," she adds, "but for 30 years?"
For people with savings, volunteer opportunities can provide the same antiaging benefits, and opportunities to do good at an advanced age are multiplying. Experience Corps has enlisted 2,000 volunteers over age 50 to tutor and mentor children in 22 inner-city schools; the federal government's Senior Corps of 500,000 volunteers over 55 renovate homes, act as companions for the elderly, and assist victims of natural disasters. "Here I am, serving in a rural village primary school, demonstrating good hygiene practices to the children," writes 85-year-old Peace Corps volunteer Muriel Johnston via E-mail from Morocco. "I've met a lot of wonderful people and am being tutored in Tashilheet," a language she's picking up bit by bit. But Johnston, who joined up last April after retiring as an office manager, is a rarity among retirees—a reality that could be remedied, Rowe thinks, by offering tax rebates to those who donate their time.