Stamatakis: Pessimism affects policy

By Nick Stamatakis

If I learned anything this Thanksgiving, it was that old people are grumpy about things.

From… If I learned anything this Thanksgiving, it was that old people are grumpy about things.

From personal weight issues to “kids these days” to how big candy bars used to be, there are a lot of things to be concerned about if you are more than 50 years old, apparently.

I don’t mean this in disrespect, either. Aging is inherently nostalgic, and there is nothing wrong with people who are nostalgic feeling somewhat negative about the future. It is something that just sort of happens. The past always seems rosy, and the future can seem uncertain and negative.

This is even true among younger people. Many college-aged people today have pessimistic thoughts about this generation’s young teens. While we nostalgically evoke playing tag until sundown and watching Nickelodeon, we see kids today addicted to cell phones and Hannah Montana and can’t help but to think the worst for tomorrow.

So when vacancy signs appear on old stores, mergers and acquisitions end established corporations and unemployment hovers at uncomfortably high rates, it is natural that older Americans feel the most negative about the future. The past was great, and now everything is changing.

This was highlighted in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, which asked respondents if today’s young people will have as good of a future as their parents. In the results, 51 percent of people overall felt this to be the case, but people older than 50 were decidedly less optimistic. The most optimistic were people younger than 30.

Considering that this over-50 contingent of the population will only increase in size as baby boomers age, an interesting trend emerges for the next decade — the country might get less optimistic just because it will be getting older. The actual state of the country might stay the same, or even improve, but just by virtue of people getting older, polls like this will make it seem like things are getting worse. It’s quite a simple idea. Disproportionately more people will be thinking about five-cent Hershey bars and disproportionately fewer people will be naive college kids.

And it isn’t just an American phenomenon that older citizens tend to be less optimistic about the future. One poll found German youth to be disproportionately optimistic about their country and personal economic prospects, and young Afghanis are proving to be the least cynical about the prospects of the fledgling democracy.

This might seem like an irrelevant discussion. Polls, after all, are just polls — so what if they say we are less optimistic. Besides, just because people get less optimistic as they age doesn’t mean that their feelings shouldn’t count. The discussion can seem purely academic.

But this is not the case. These polls affect the nation’s psyche, which in turn affects the nation’s policy. Sensing a population dreading the future and yearning for the simpler past, feeling the country is somehow past its prime, Congress might promote less risk and more caution in its legislation. Less open to big change, the aging population might find this desirable.

But to see the outcome of this approach and the dangers of an old country, one need look no further than Japan. Once a healthy, vibrant country, Japan is getting old — the average age is almost 45 years, nearly 8 years more than the average age of inhabitants of the United States. As such, policy in the country in many ways is lethargic and sluggish.

Think about this Thanksgiving when you watched that lovable great uncle of yours fall asleep in the recliner. His health might not be perfect and his house might not be in the best shape, but hey, he’s happy and content for now. Japan is much like this uncle — it faces steep deflation, a rapidly aging workforce, enormous public debt and a chronically underperforming economy but is just fine muddling along for now because, you know, it’s Japan.

And make no mistake — it isn’t optimism that things will magically get better that is driving this inaction.

It is largely apathy and the lack of collective will to address the problems. Japan had too much turkey in the 1980s — in the form of a real estate bubble — and today just sits around, slowly declining.

America too, could face the same problems as it ages. An aging population can start simply feeling negatively about the future but from there can move toward apathy and defeat. Not only will polls say Americans are less optimistic about the future, but policy and collective will could deteriorate.

So at Christmas, when you see the family again, remember that talking about how great old TV was isn’t just a personal hang-up, but a symptom of aging that could potentially creep into the nation’s psyche without a healthy dose of youthful optimism.

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