"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (Corinthians).
Theodore Roszak is a professor of history best known for his youth-oriented book, The Making of a Counter Culture. Now that he is older and has survived a serious illness, he is writing about the opposite end of the age spectrum.
Professor Roszak's thesis in America the Wise: The Longevity Revolution and the True Wealth of Nations (Houghton Mifflin, 272 pages, $25 cloth) is straightforward and can be summarized best in four points. The first is that the population of the United States (and other developed countries) is rapidly aging. The second is that the economic scaremongering to which we have been subjected does not reflect reality. The third is that demographic changes will alter society. And the final is that these changes will actually improve American society.
Roszak is a clear and articulate writer. His explanation of the demographic changes is superb. He does not mistake life expectancy for lifespan, and thus does not make inflated predictions about it being vastly increased. He firmly understands that the increase in the number of the elderly is related primarily to decreased mortality in childhood and earlier adult life, and not to old people living longer. This fundamental mistake was made by Maclean's in their 1997 issue on aging and resulted in unsubstantiated assertions on how long people would likely live in the near future. As well, Roszak's use of the "ragged fringe" is realistic: the issue of disability before death cannot simply be "wished away", and there is no guarantee that healthier lifestyles will prevent disability.
The arguments of exaggerated economic scare-mongering are very persuasive. In particular, I accept Roszak's hypothesis that in such a wealthy society, concerns about social security and medicare are more debates about values than economics. The assertion that society is changing with the demographic changes is self-evident and well-supported by the author.
Where the book falls short is in the final point: society will be changing for the better. Because futurists can never rely on empirical data, they must persuade us by the logic of their arguments. Unfortunately, the latter half of the book, while well-written and interesting, does not convince me that the future society will be better (and as a rapidly aging geriatrician, I was desperate to be convinced). In fact some of the chapters, while providing interesting insights into aging, hardly seem related to his thesis. Many of the facts concerning aging are very current and quite accurate, and while there are some minor caveats (such as an underestimate of the prevalence of dementia in old age), these do not really weaken the text.
In summary, this is a well-written book that clearly and accurately addresses the demographic changes in American society, but does not convincingly argue its central hypothesis-namely, that these changes will improve society. The book reminds me of a quote in the autobiography of Hans Blumenfeld, the famous Canadian city planner who did much of his best work after the age of sixty-five: "I have chosen the title [Life Begins at 65] as a declaration of war against the absurd tendency to divide life into three boxes: a first, in which one learns but does not work; a second, when one works but does not learn; and a third, in which one neither works nor learns." Mr. Blumenfeld published this in 1987, at the age of 95.