Old Salty Dog Blues


I’m not getting any younger. I suspect that you’re not, either, and perhaps your customers are moving a little slower lately as well.

Last year, there were approximately 52 million Americans over the age of 65, which amounts to 16 percent of the population. By 2060, the number is expected to reach 95 million, or 23 percent of the projected population. In the next decade alone, the aging of the baby boom generation will add 18 million people to that demographic.

We know a lot about those people. (Some of us know a lot more than we should, but that’s another editorial.) One of the things we know is that older folks are much more likely to live in rural areas, where they make up more than a quarter of the population.

Another is that they are more interested in politics, and not simply as voters, or activists, but as candidates. Among the Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination, the top three are all past 70. The current president, and likely Republican nominee, is 73.

The question is whether or not age matters, and if so, how old is too old? Joe Biden, who is about to turn 77, has committed a number of gaffes on the campaign trail, and stumbled his way through the first two presidential debates. When former housing secretary Julian Castro accused him of forgetting what he had said only moments earlier, Biden responded by asking Bernie Sanders what Castro was talking about.

That was a striking image, as one near-octogenarian consulted with another. A few minutes later, Biden put another dent in his campaign by giving a marginally coherent answer to a question about racial justice, which he concluded by advising African-Americans to play the “record player” at night.

The scene was a “Saturday Night Live” skit waiting to happen, but a couple weeks later there came a more sobering reminder of the aging process. Senator Sanders suffered a heart attack.

It’s not that unusual for a 78-year-old man to have a mild heart attack that requires the insertion of a stent. One of the guys I play tennis with, a fit 64, had the same thing happen a few months ago and was back on the court a week later.

It is very unusual among people running for president, however. I don’t recall it ever happening before, although Lyndon Johnson had a severe heart attack at the age of 47, eight years before he became president. President Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack in 1955, and was re-elected the following year.

In the case of Joe Biden, the public has been more concerned with his mental condition than physical. It has put his spokespeople in the ironic position of arguing that his mistakes are the result of his personality, not his age. In other words, he’s always been this way.

The other leading Democrat is a few years younger but seems to be (and actually is) from an entirely different generation. At 70, Elizabeth Warren bounds around the stage like a teenager and hangs around for hours after every event, posing for selfies. If she suffers any ill effects from aging, she is one heck of an actress.

Then there is President Trump. He is 73, has heart disease, is substantially overweight, eats a diet of cheeseburgers, believes that exercise is bad for you, doesn’t get nearly enough sleep and has the highest-stress job in the world. What could go wrong?

Those of us who are “getting up there” can tell ourselves that 70 is the new 50, or whatever, but average life expectancy in the United States is about 78. More than 90 percent of people over 65 have at least one chronic illness such as diabetes or heart disease, and the numbers only get worse after that.

I’m not suggesting that seniors should just hang it up and go home, nor that any of us shouldn’t consider older job applicants for our businesses, merely that we shouldn’t pretend that anyone is unaffected by time. That includes ourselves.

Last week I was playing tennis with three other members of my own generation, on a freakishly hot autumn day. About halfway through the match, I realized that the heat was affecting me more seriously than it would have in the past. I even began to wonder whether or not I could die out there, but being a relatively competitive person, I figured the odds were pretty good that somebody else would die first.

At any rate, it was pretty clear that a career in professional athletics is off the table at this point. It might be more sensible to consider the career I have now. At 66, am I too old to run a small company in this industry?

Well, if I am, a lot of other people in the industry are as well. That tends to be the case in a relatively small business segment such as specialty toys, where there are hundreds of companies being operated by their founders. Those entrepreneurs may stay on indefinitely, either because they are so attached to their creations, or because they can’t find the door.

I can’t speak for my fellow baby boomers, but I have no problem admitting that I’ve lost a step. Words don’t come to me as fluently as they did when I started writing these columns 35 years ago. I don’t have the energy or the drive to work long hours and travel all over the country as I did back then, and I’m a lot more willing to let other people make strategic decisions.

Of course I like to think I could dial it up if circumstances demanded it, and perhaps I could, at least for a while. It probably says a lot that I don’t really care to find out.

If you think that people should retire from executive careers when they begin to decline mentally, then virtually everyone reading this magazine should cash out. Studies have shown that some types of mental acuity start to decrease in our twenties, and most measures of intellect are moving south by our forties. The rate of decline after 70 is disturbing, to say the least.

Gallup reports that working Americans, on average, expect to retire at 66, but the average actual retirement age is 63. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, there are four main factors that cause most people to leave the workforce at a relatively young age.

By far the most common, sadly, are health problems. The next most common cause is losing one’s job, for whatever reason, followed by family issues. Most of these are health-related as well, but they also include divorce, a spouse who retires, grandchildren who need supervision, etc. Finally, some people have a sudden change in financial circumstances, like an inheritance or other windfall.

It would be nice if things just came together perfectly, that you are ready to retire at the same time you can afford it, your family’s on board and your business is all set to run without you. As my father used to say, timing is everything.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself elderly and still anxious to take on a huge new job, you could always run for president.

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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