America Needs New Ideas for Entitlements and Old Age

Americans are living longer, but the current system of entitlement programs can no longer pay the bill.

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Just how old is old?

According to a recent survey conducted by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion on behalf of Home Instead Senior Care, there is no single definition. The youngest of those surveyed old age starts around age 62. Generation X said 71. The "Baby Boomers" said 77. And "The Greatest Generation" said 81.

It's an important question, and not just where quality of life issues are concerned. Some of the largest federal entitlement programs—like Social Security and Medicare—go toward ameliorating a lot of the cost of getting old. Unfortunately current projections indicate that it will not be all that long before the demands on those programs outstrip the economy's ability to pay for them, at least as they are currently structured.

[Read Mort Zuckerman: Social Security Has Reached a Tipping Point]

The time to think about ways to reform these programs is long past. It's not enough to raise taxes or reduce benefits or raise the retirement age for Social Security and the inevitable rationing of the services available under Medicare is not going to go over very well either. America needs to come to terms now with the fact that people on average are going to live longer, want to live longer, and want to live well. "Being 'old' doesn't dampen the desire for a long life," Marist said, with survey respondents from every generation indicating they "all would like to live a long life to 90 years."

The ongoing revolution in healthcare could make this a reality—even if the current average U.S. life expectancy is only 78.4 years. But with longer lives come new medical realities and relatively new diseases like Alzheimer's that threaten to impose huge costs on the economy. Obamacare alone—or anything like it—isn't sufficient to address these problems. Healthcare consumers need more choices, not less, and they need to be empowered to make them.

The medical and pharmaceutical communities need to be looking for cures, not just better ways of treating the illnesses of an aging population, and the government needs to be their partner in the laboratories in this effort rather than being a bureaucratic watchdog keeping new treatments from entering the medical marketplace.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

America's aging population needs to have more choices when it comes to planning for retirement, which means allowing for private accounts as a part of Social Security instead of continuing the one-size-doesn't-fit-all system that is nearing bankruptcy.

It's up to Congress and the president to address these problems now, while there's still time. Kicking the can down the road means handing an enormous bill to our children and grandchildren, above and beyond what's already coming their way.

  • Read Mary Kate Cary on Medicare Reform?
  • See photos of healthcare reform protests.
  • See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit