Author Susan Jacoby

Never Say Die author discusses the plight of America’s aging baby boomers and what that means for the U.S. as a whole.

Susan Jacoby is an independent scholar whose work focuses on American intellectual history. For more than 25 years, she's been a contributor to a wide range of publications, including Harper's, Vogue and The Nation, and now writes "The Spirited Atheist" weekly blog for the On Faith Web site. She's also a best-selling author, who's written 10 nonfiction texts. Jacoby began her writing career as a reporter for The Washington Post and lived for two years in the USSR. She's a member of the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America.


Tavis: Susan Jacoby is a best-selling author whose previous books include “The Age of American Unreason.” Her latest is “Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age.” Susan Jacoby, good to have you on this program.
Susan Jacoby: Wonderful to be here.
Tavis: Glad to have you. Tell me about the marketing of this new old age. I think I know what you mean by this because I see these commercials all the time on television of people running through gardens and [laugh] –
Jacoby: It’s called age defying.
Tavis: Yeah.
Jacoby: It really is summed up by the title of a panel at the World Science Festival in New York City two years ago. It was called “90 is the new 50” [laugh]. I went because I thought does anyone really believe that?
But you’re right about people romping through gardens. Every commercial for a product for the old – and I use the word old proudly because I hate these euphemisms. The media usually use older. Older than whom? Or aging. My 21-year-old niece is aging.
Tavis: How about chronologically gifted?
Jacoby: Chronologically gifted. Very good.
Tavis: Is that okay [laugh]?
Jacoby: That kind of thing, as though the very word old itself, there is something wrong with it. In commercials for products for the old, one of the things that you notice all the time is that the people in them aren’t old [laugh]. The Viagra commercials have 40-year-old actors, sort of the subliminal impression being that you’re going to look like this if you’re using Viagra.
Tavis: So what is it about our psyche, what is it about us, that allows us or makes us want to believe that, when we are 90, we’re gonna be running around and jumping out of planes and doing all the things that we see certain people doing?
Jacoby: Well, there are always exceptions, people who do seem ageless. But I think there are a couple of things. One, simply the boomer generation to which both of us really belong has always believed in self-transformation and that, if you live right, if you do exercise, if you eat your green vegetables, if you stay active, then everything will be all right.
These things are all great at any age. They make life better and, whether you’re healthy or not, they make you better able to live. But they are not a guarantee that you’re not going to grow old and get the diseases that happen when people from sort of what demographers call young old, the 60s and 70s, into the 80s and 90s.
Many more of us are going to live into our 80s and 90s. Only 20 years from now, 8.5 million Americans are going to be over 85. No matter what you do, there’s a whole set of challenges that most people have to cope with at that age.
Tavis: I was at a dinner party some weeks ago – before I knew you were going to be on this show – and this issue came up about getting old and about dying. It just so happened that I was sitting at a table – I was the only one there who was just a lay person – I was sitting at a table with all ministers, all reverends, all pastors of churches, major churches.
I’m just sitting there having dinner with them and talking about a variety of things. One of the issues that comes up is this issue of people now believing they’re going to live forever, not preparing to die, not wanting to accept that they’re going to die.
Keep in mind, now. This is from the vantage point of preachers who have been, for years, used to people getting themselves ready at some point to go meet their maker. But now, rather than getting ready to go meet their maker, they want to talk to the doctor again. They want to try something else. Have we exhausted all means?
It’s the point you made earlier that never say die, that nobody these days seems comfortable with, at some point, making that transition, although we know that moment that’s going to come, one day will come.
Talk to me psychologically about what it is about us that doesn’t want to even wrestle with the fact that we are not human and divine. We’re just human and one day it’s gonna be over.
Jacoby: Well, all right. I hear this so much that I focus – first of all, this book really isn’t about death; it’s about something which is much worse than death, whether you’re talking in a spiritual sense or just an earthly sense, which is that before we die, if we live into our 80s and 90s, we are going to go more than half – through an extended period of physical or mental disability.
The boomers all have this fantasy. Even a minister or two may have it that we’re not going to ever be sick before we die. What’s going to happen is we’re going to die of a heart attack at the age of 95 while making love or skydiving or paragliding. The skydiving granny – it’s a popular image in media.
There is a new commercial for a financial advisory firm that’s all over the TV which showed a woman how to save enough money to live agelessly and it’s shown at the end of the commercial. She’s paragliding and she’s 186 and this financial advisory firm has showed her how to save so that she doesn’t need her social security or anything like that [laugh].
It’s part of a whole fantasy that you can control everything and I think, whether you’re religious or not, the idea that you can control everything, that just because you do everything right – and we all want to do all we can to stay healthy as long as we can – that things are going to turn out perfectly right.
Half of people over 85 have Alzheimer’s Disease. It is an age-related disease for which there is no cure or effective treatment. At this point, according to the best science, there is nothing we can do about it. These are realities that we have to be thinking about. I don’t think it’s just that people don’t want to think about dying. I think they don’t want to think realistically about what being old also means.
Tavis: Well, your subtitle suggests the myth and marketing of the new old age. We talked about the marketing a bit here a moment ago. Who’s behind the myth? Is it the marketers that we’re talking about who are pushing this myth? Who’s pushing this myth?
Jacoby: I think all of us actually. It goes along with heavy marketing and the realization that older people have money. But I also think there’s something that the baby boomers have grown up in an age of medical miracles. My first memory is of standing in line to get the Salk polio vaccine when I was nine years old. If you’ve grown up with real medical miracles – and I wouldn’t call them miracles; they’re achievements of science.
But it’s quite a different thing, antibiotics, from dealing with genetically-based diseases which carry people off in old days like Alzheimer’s, like cancer, diseases which can only be if they can be put off by a healthy lifestyle because our bodies wear out at the end. Now there’s a faction of science that doesn’t, but I think it’s mostly Americans, don’t you think, are not very good at long-term thinking.
Tavis: Um-hum.
Jacoby: I think this shows in our society in a lot of ways that we’re not very good at long-term thinking. You know, when I hear now, for instance, people talking about cutting entitlements, well, fine. But the fact is that’s based on the idea somehow that old people on social security and using Medicare are greedy geezers and that we all as individuals ought to be able to save enough for a 30-year retirement.
Well, I’m sorry. The average person in this country – the median income is about $60,000 for a family of four – really cannot save privately enough money for a 30-year retirement. That is why social security was instituted in the first place. Now the difference then, in 1935, life expectancy was 62. We didn’t have millions of people living into their 80s and 90s.
And the idea that there’s an individual solution to this problem, that only if you’re good, it’s like saying if you take your worthless supplements, that you’re going to love forever. The idea that if you just saved harder that you can save enough not to work for 30 years is ridiculous. It’s sort of individualism run amok.
Tavis: You started to go down this path and I’m glad you went there because I wanted to raise this, so let me just follow you now. We see this myth impacting our public discourse vis-à-vis entitlements, vis-à-vis the president’s budget, vis-à-vis the budget that Republicans have put up.
We see what’s happening in Wisconsin – people concerned about their pensions and collective bargaining. We see it happening in Indiana and Ohio. We see this myth starting now to grab hold of the public debate about the future. What do you make of that?
Jacoby: You are absolutely right. That’s why I say in this book that the myths that we’re all going to be sexy skydiving centenarians is really a delusion that’s socially harmful. Because if that were true, if 90 really were the new 50, well, then, we don’t really need social security or we don’t really need Medicare if every 80 and 90-year-old can just take care of themselves and go on working and shopping until they drop.
But the fact is, of people over 65 today, 75 percent live on less than $34,000 a year including social security. Does that sound like lavish living to you? What we hear is a discourse based on exceptional cases of a few unions that have really excellent pensions. But the fact is, most people don’t have them.
I will tell you that, if we don’t wake up 20 years from now when all of these cute baby boomers turning 65 like me – I turned 65 just a few months ahead of the baby boom – we’re going to be 85 in the harder, more expensive stages. Old age is costly. Unhealthy old age and as people live longer, there are all kinds of diseases come into play, it’s even costlier.
To be talking just about – look, talking about raising the retirement age to 70 is a good example. Now I’m no fan of retirement and I hope not to retire until the reading public retires me [laugh]. As long as I have my mind and, remember, 50 percent of people over 85 at some point don’t, I will go on writing.
However, think about people who have worked a whole lifetime, not only the heavy physical work like, say, coalmining which is obvious, but think about the woman who has made her living standing behind a retail counter her whole life, standing on her feet. Is it so easy for her to work until 70 or beyond?
And number two, where are these jobs coming from for old people who have – I know many people who lost their jobs in the crash of 2008 in their late 50s and early 60s. They’re the last to be hired. They can’t find jobs. Where are these jobs coming from for these old people are supposed to work so we can cut social security?
Tavis: So, given all that you lay out in this text, what ought government be focusing on specifically, number one, and, number two, what do we the people do about pushing back on this myth and this marketing?
Jacoby: Well, I’ll start with we the people. One of the problems I’ve found is that people either hate or love my book. The older people are, the better they like it because they are living through some of the things I’m talking about. A lot of people in their 50s say that I’m a really negative thinker. Oh, what a downer it is to say that half of people over 85, and that’s not going to happen to me is the message of it. We the people –
Tavis: – that’s the myth in the marketing.
Jacoby: We the people, first of all, have got to start thinking realistically about it ourselves. And we the people and government – this sounds ridiculous, given the level of discourse we’ve got now – in my previous book on unreason, we’re seeing unreason in this discourse now, but all you have to do is just cut. It’s an unrealistic vision of old age.
You know, one of the great achievements of the American 20th century was reducing poverty among old people. If we don’t start wising up and thinking realistically instead of in terms of the fantasy of what we would all like our old age to be, we are going to undo that achievement. The boomers are not going to be richer than the generation before them.
I should add something else. As you know, the majority of people over 85 are women overwhelmingly. Women are poorer than men, African Americans and Hispanics are poorer than whites, and the gap between the rich and the poor weighs even more heavily on the old than on young people because the old don’t have the resources and the physical strength to go on making more money and doing things. This is going to be a bigger problem.
So, you know, when you’re talking about what government could do, the things we need to be doing right now are thinking about a solution, say, for Medicare. I don’t disagree that the costs of Medicare are out of control.
One of the terrible things is that President Obama bowed to right wing pressure and withdraw this little proposal for patients to have voluntary consultations with their doctors about do I want aggressive medical care if there’s no hope that I can recover. My own mother took care of that and wrote it out in her will and gave my brother and me specific instructions. So she’s 90 now and we know exactly what she wants.
But many people, for the reasons we’re talking about, wanting to live forever or just not wanting to think about it, don’t talk to their children, don’t find out legally what they need to do if what they don’t want to do at the end of life is to be hooked up to a tube when they can’t recover. These are not death panels in that loathsome right wing term. They are life panels.
There are millions of people who don’t want medical care that’s only prolonging dying rather than living. That’s one thing that we the people can definitely do. We can think about this. We can draw up living wills and appoint someone to follow and, most of all, to also talk with our families about it so that there are no doubts, but it also has to be written down.
Tavis: Why should we, though, why should we not believe – you said earlier that you don’t like to use the phrase “medical miracles” and I hear your point. They are medical achievements.
But given the rapid pace at which the field of medicine is charting these achievements, why should we not believe that science one day will allow us to push back on part of what you’re arguing in the book and that we are gonna live longer and that we are gonna be healthier? Maybe you are a pessimist.
Jacoby: Actually, I do believe that one day science is certainly going to find something to delay Alzheimer’s. But one of the reasons these things are not as easy is that these are very complicated diseases. The more research is done, the more genetic complications. It’s related to a lot of genes, your family background.
These are basic things having to do with the body as it wears out. Even if you – it’s not like, say, replacing a knee or replacing a hip. Somewhere you and I in our heads, there could be a genetic disaster unfolding right now. That’s not pessimistic; that’s just a fact.
I’m going to quote a dear old friend of mine. His name was Dr. Robert Butler. He died of leukemia at 82 last year, first director of the National Institute on Aging. He said, “I’m a scientist. No one believes in science more than I do and I would love to wake up tomorrow morning and see that there was a cure or even something to treat effectively to delay a little bit Alzheimer’s.” He said, “I hope to do this, but hope is not a plan of action.”
What I would say, the thing to do – we can all have this hope. I have this hope too. My partner died of Alzheimer’s, was 15 years older than I was. He died of cancer mercifully before he kicked into the last stages of Alzheimer’s. If you’ve lived through this, there’s nothing more you would want than hope. But hope is not a plan of action.
One thing we could do for families taking care of people with Alzheimer’s is right now, unlike the rest of the developed world, we don’t pay for any help at home and the burden that falls on people who have only themselves and there’s no money to hire home health care aides, or we could put our money where our mouth is.
One reason that long-term care institutions are mostly so bad is what we pay the people who staff long-term care institutions. A society shows its values by how it pays people for certain jobs. We pay almost nothing to people who care for the elderly and yet we yell about death panels as though we were doing our job to take care of old people.
Tavis: I read a survey, a study, not long ago. As a matter of fact, I talked about it on this program. As I recall, it was called the Rasmussen Report. The Rasmussen Report found that nearly half of all Americans think that our best days are behind us. Nearly half of us think that our best days as a country are behind us.
I’m just trying to figure out how, if half of us think that our best days are already behind us, how it is that we ever come to wrestle with what you’re laying out in the text about what’s in front of us.
Jacoby: That really is the question. I don’t know. I read that same report. I don’t know exactly what people mean by saying our best days are behind us. There’s a lot behind us that is really good to have behind us. Good to have slavery behind us, good to have the discrimination against women that existed when I entered the workforce. I’m not so nostalgic for all these best days we supposedly have behind us.
But for better days to be in front of us, we have to really challenge some of our assumptions. Right now, I really don’t believe – and I think our politicians will find out when it comes right down to it – I don’t believe, when they really get down to talking about cutting social security and Medicare, I don’t think that grannies lying homeless in the streets is really what Americans want to see.
I think right now we are just not thinking realistically about what the real problems of old age are. This whole thing about our best days being behind us, I just don’t know what people are thinking about. There’s no reason that our best days in relation to this in terms of caring for the old couldn’t be in front of us, but not if we go on with this absolute fantasy.
My grandmother lived to be 99. She was born in 1899; she died in 1998. She said to me one of the last times I saw her – she had a sharp mind, but her body had failed her – she said one of the worst things about living to this age is you feel absolutely useless. My grandmother was a person who defined herself by her uselessness. If there had been some assistance, just some, to have some home care help for her, which she couldn’t pay for, she wouldn’t have had to have been in a nursing home the last three years of her life.
There’s just so much more we can do. I agree that this is not a climate that makes you feel hopeful when we hear this kind of nonsense.
Tavis: You’ve listed a number of things by my count now, a number of good things that you talk about in this conversation and in the text more expressly, that we can, should and ought to be doing to wrestle with this demon. That is to say, the demon of the myth of this new old age.
I believe that a society is judged by how it treats its poor, its young, its aged, the widow. What does it say, then, about our society? You know where I’m going with this. What’s it say about us?
Jacoby: The late Senator Hubert Humphrey said it very poetically: “A society is judged by how it treats people in the dawn of life, in the twilight and in the shadows of life.”
Tavis: Which I’d said that.
Jacoby: Well, it’s a great quote, isn’t it? The twilight of life and the shadows of life is what we are talking about when we are talking about the oldest old. Right now, we’re just talking a good game, but we’re not doing anything about it. You can’t possibly – all I’m hearing right now is cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.
I’m not a financial expert. I believe the deficit is a problem, but where are the politicians who will tell people if you’re not going to kill granny in that horrible right wing slur about healthcare reform, then we’re going to have to pay for what longer lives cost. This is not only a moral issue; it’s also an issue of reason. The numbers don’t add up, the right wingers keep saying.
Well, one of the numbers that doesn’t add up is just what are we planning to do? Oh, we can’t have a consultation with our doctor about whether we want to be hooked up to tubes at the end of life, but we don’t want to have to pay as much as we’re paying for Medicare. In fact, we are going to have to pay more. People are going to have to pay more taxes. You can’t deal with this without that. If we want to have a decent society for people who are going to live longer, then we are going to have to pay for it.
And as far as science goes, medical research is being cut. It’s one of those little non-essential things that’s now being cut in all fields. If there’s any hope for finding better treatments, let’s leave aside cure for a minute for things like Alzheimer’s, it lies in basic biomedical research which we’re cutting like crazy now. You know, who needs that [laugh]? It’s a frill.
Tavis: It’s a sobering thought; it’s an unsettling thought. All these thoughts are sobering and unsettling.
Jacoby: I don’t claim that this is light entertainment or that it’s easy to think about. I’ve gotten lots of letters. The older people are, the better they like this book. One of the things they say is you’ve said some of the things about what it’s really like to cope with growing old, that I wish I could say, but I haven’t.
Because one of the things, old people are thought to be aging successfully only if they don’t complain. That is the young peoples’ definition of “successful aging.” Grandpa and Grandma don’t complain.
Tavis: As I said, it’s sobering, it’s unsettling, but most importantly, it’s real and it’s got to be dealt with. The new book is called “Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age” by the author of “The Age of American Unreason.” Susan Jacoby, thank you for the text and thanks for coming on to talk about it.
Jacoby: Thank you. I really enjoyed this.
Tavis: Glad to have you. I enjoyed it as well. That’s our show for tonight.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm