How scary is an older America? Americans aren’t sweating it

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

America is aging, and it’s supposed to be a big downer. Pensions are crushing government budgets, Social Security is in trouble and Medicare costs are going through the roof.

But someone must be putting Prozac in our water supply, because we don’t seem to be fretting. A recent Pew Research Center study of attitudes about aging in 21 countries finds Americans far less worried about the aging trend than others. Just 26 percent say aging is a problem in our country, compared with 43 percent of the British, 55 percent of Germans, 67 percent of Chinese and 87 percent of Japanese.

Pew chalks it up to America’s relatively youthful demographics. Although 21 percent of us will be over 65 by 2050, up from 13 percent in 2010, our median age will still be five years younger than that of the rest of the world. That’s mainly because we have higher rates of immigration, and immigrants tend to be young.

Our blase attitude toward aging is striking in light of politically motivated efforts to whip up a frenzy on the topic. Proponents of cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits warn that these programs will eat our economy alive if we don’t curb them. Some have even tried to pit generations against one another by trying to make the case that the old literally are stealing from the young.

Ted Fishman

Ted Fishman

Ted Fishman, author of “Shock of Gray,” a 2010 book about the global economics of aging, chalks up American optimism to several factors – not the least of which is ignorance. “We think blithely about a lot of things that the rest of the world is more realistic about – and it might just reflect our low level of financial literacy.”

But the Pew findings might just reflect accurate American instincts about what it will take to care for our aging society. “We’re pretty good at muddling through,” Fishman says. “We are very good at supporting each other and taking care of family members – our familial supports are very strong.”

Learn more in my column at Reuters Money.