Chapter 36: The Longer We Live, The More We Can Give

The phony debate over intergenerational jobs.

The first two sentences of the opening essay in Half Empty by the Canadian critic and wit David Rakoff, who died of cancer last August at the age of 48, run as follows: “We were so happy. It was miserable.”

I thought about those lines and the capacity human beings have to snatch gloom from opportunity – to see the glass half empty – when I recently skimmed through the umpteenth article this year about the ravages of “structural unemployment” on the youth of our nation; and our generation’s culpability therein. The argument, by now familiar, goes something like this: in the old days, when an industry was rendered obsolete and destroyed, it was typically replaced by a rise of new jobs in new companies and industries offering new goods and services. But in today’s super speedy high-tech economy, technological advances appear to evaporate jobs, which never come back.

To make matters worse, the people who still have jobs and who previously might have retired by force of habit or law are tending more and more not to; which means that there are fewer jobs available for first timers. The people refusing to retire are us, selfish old geezers who refuse to shuffle off and fade away. The people we’re screwing out of jobs are the Gen Xs and Ys and the Millennials. Galloping Technology may be the root problem, but we’re the human culprits. Our crime? Using up too much of everything, living too long.

Here are three main counter-arguments to these zombie charges.

First, there’s mounting evidence that it’s not just some new kind of destruction of jobs that’s creating unemployment today but an all too common mismatch between the skills job applicants have and the ones employers now need. As of this May, Canada had 1.33 million unemployed workers but, according to, “business hired 338,000 temporary foreign workers last year, citing shortages in skilled and low-skilled jobs.”

Second, far from stealing jobs from youngsters, our massive cohort is actually taking the edge off a growing problem; namely, over-employment. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce believes that if no steps are taken to lessen the impact of boomers leaving the workforce, by 2020 Canada could have a shortfall of one million skilled jobs.

Third, to compensate for the jobs disappearing due to technology, there will be a huge countervailing rise in the “soft economy” as a direct function of our demographic’s pioneering journey into widespread great age.

These are the human jobs, particularly in the caring trades, jobs that can’t be automated or outsourced because they demand person-to-person contact. Nor will all of these functions require medical or therapeutic knowledge but will include things like transportation, shopping, administrative support, financial and health advice, physical training, life-coaching and jobs retraining. What’s interesting about this coming new economy is that it’s not only consistent with a historical trend toward sustainability and environmental consciousness but it’s also beneficial economically for almost every demographic.

It’s good for our gang because we can participate not just as receivers (clients) but as providers (workers) of these services; which, in valuing brain over brawn, play directly to our strengths. It’s good for women, who have historically shown more talent than men for the co-operative and collaborative approach to problem-solving our age increasingly requires. It’s good for the techno-geeks, because it helps to repair an employment imbalance they created; and, most important to this conversation, it’s terrific for young people because they are in the best position of all to exploit the revolution. Add a bit of entrepreneurial flair and they could even, pardon the expression, make a killing out of it.

But they don’t seem to recognize this fact; which brings me back to my initial question. Why do youth insist on seeing their glass as half empty? Why don’t our kids and grandkids recognize in our continued presence a cause for joy, an opportunity? Why is it their reflex that our increasing life span spells catastrophe for them? Why don’t they see the obvious; namely, that in helping us live more comfortable, productive lives as we get older, they will not only find a purpose and make money, but they will help themselves down the line? After all, are they not us: old people in the making? A natural alliance between our camps should be a no-brainer. There’s a reason why most grandparents get along with their grandkids. Yet today, longevity – grandparents hanging around longer – is seen as some kind of a threat.

In the Simon and Garfunkel tune “Old Friends,” the well-known bridge to the song goes like this:

Can you imagine us years
from today?
Sharing a park bench quietly,
How terribly strange to be seventy.

Terribly strange? I’m 70. The last time I sat on a park bench quietly was, well, never; not that – as Jerry Seinfeld would say – there’s anything wrong with that. But the disconnect between image and reality is instructive. Paul Simon was 23 when he wrote those words. Today, he’s … 72 (older than me) and fresh off a surprise concert appearance with Sting (a mere 61) in Atlantic City. But his song remains an excellent example of how hard it is for young people, actually, people of almost any age, to imagine themselves old. Old age is what happens to others, not us. When we look at old people, we see anyone but ourselves. We don’t see someone whose fate will soon be ours. It’s almost a biological blindness.

As advocates of increased longevity, we have to face certain facts. We know that even with declining birth rates in the poor world, if there is no rapid levelling off of current trends, we could still end up with a planet housing nine or 10 or 11 billion people or trying to because such numbers will further stress the planet.

One solution beloved of futurists and billionaires is to get off the planet. Scientists tell us that the geological spoils from one single asteroid mined for rare earth elements and titanium will exceed the GDP of the entire planet for a year (and there are 600,000 such objects in near earth orbit). But if we opt not to leave the home planet or can’t, then in the future we may have to choose between an earth populated by large numbers of peoples barely aspiring to today’s Western life-spans – or, by curtailing population expansion, end up with a planet that carries a stabilized, smaller population that lives much longer.

The second option is clearly the more controversial; but to my mind, it’s also the one most likely to occur through natural progression. History shows that as societies get wealthier and education spreads – particularly among women – the birth rate drops. When life is nasty, brutish and short, we need more children to make sure enough survive to ensure the continuation of our DNA and to create a surplus of wealth. But if that surplus can now be assured by labour-saving technological advancements and sustained by that segment of the population that likes to work and feels privileged to do so, then smaller families will become the norm in the developing world, with young people growing in importance because they are scarce and in great demand, especially for those jobs that can only be done by humans and not machines. According to such a scenario, more and more people will have more and more years of personal enrichment and enjoyment to look forward to.

Current flashpoint issues like intergenerational employment and economics should be seen as microcosms of a larger philosophical question: how will society react to truly augmented longevity when (not if) it becomes a reality (as it is now becoming). One thing’s for sure: seeing the glass half empty is the wrong way to take on both our immediate predicament and the larger, deeper one we`ll face in the future. If we believe that our mission in life is to actualize the gift of it through personal growth, creativity and good works, then there is no reason why any person should be denied pursuit of life’s great physical, creative and spiritual pleasures because of age. Equally, we understand that our newly extended Pursuit of Happiness must co-exist with the General Good. Or, to paraphrase a Jewish boy turned Vulcan sage, pointy ears and all:
there must be a way for both old and young to “Live Long” and “Prosper.” Together.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.