How to save Humpty-Dumpty

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Sarah Toevs, director of the Center for Aging at Boise State University, calls the baby-boomer bulge “Humpty-Dumpty,” after the egg-shaped population bulge all those births caused. She sees Humpty as a retirement-planning problem of major proportions.

For at least a millennium, the population has been distributed with a large base of young people at the bottom capped by a small cluster of adults at the top. But that is changing rapidly because over the next 19 years, 10,000 people will turn 65 every day. “This will make it difficult to enjoy life as we know it,” Toevs says.

When Social Security and later Medicare were conceived, there were five working people for every recipient of these retirement programs. But that number has diminished and will continue to shrink. “In 15 years, there will be just 1.5 people working to support Humpty,” says Toevs. “We’re living longer, and we haven’t adjusted the system.”

How would she fix it?

  • Provide incentives — probably tax incentives — for people who don’t need their Social Security to delay taking it — preferably forever.
  • Enact legislation that would encourage people to keep working until they are at least 70 or 72 — and employers to keep them on the job.
  • Give younger people more access to preventive health care, so they stay healthier longer.
  • Encourage end-of-life planning, so more people embrace the idea of dying gracefully. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 30 percent of all Medicare dollars are spent caring for people during their last year of life.
  • Spend more money on services that keep older people living in their homes and connected to the community — nursing homes are costly.

“We have to figure out how to shore up the supports, or life will be very, very different in the next 15 to 25 years,” Toevs says.