Without big changes in public policy, the cost of caring for aging Baby Boomers will deplete the resources of younger Americans in the coming decades, members of a Stanford University panel agreed Saturday.
Current projections indicate Medicare and Social Security entitlements alone will soak up all federal tax revenue by 2057, assuming revenues grow as fast as the gross domestic product (GDP), Stanford President John Hennessy said in a Stanford Reunion Weekend panel.
Other panelists were former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Stanford alumna; Director Laura L. Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity; CEO Barry Rand of the American Association of Retired Persons; Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg; and Stanford Biology Professor Robert Sapolsky.
"Nothing will be left for defense, education or research, which creates the seed capital that leads to new companies," Hennessy said in the morning panel in Maples Pavilion.
"If you look at the models, there's no way we can do anything unless we adjust our spending profile."
Panelists suggested boosting the retirement age, finding breakthroughs on costly public health problems such as obesity and Alzheimer's, and creating incentives for home care -- rather than expensive institutional care -- for the elderly.
The title of the panel was "Generation Ageless: Longevity and the Boomers: Consequences for Our World and Ourselves."
O'Connor -- who received the warmest applause from the alumni-dominated audience -- discussed her late husband John's lengthy struggle with Alzheimer's disease. When she no longer could care for him at home, O'Connor said she realized they should be near family in Phoenix, leading to her decision to resign from the court.
"I had to stop and get him cared for," she said.
"I realized he needed to be in Phoenix, where two of our three children are and where people could visit him regularly. We were married 57 years, and he was awfully good to me."
O'Connor warned that Alzheimer's represents a looming cost to society, striking one in two people over 80.
"When we had problems with polio and tuberculosis, we got together as a nation and attacked it on a broad scale and found some solutions," she said.
"What is this nation going to do about (Alzheimer's)?"
Facebook's Sandberg waged a playful campaign to persuade O'Connor to join the social network.
"Definitely no," O'Connor said.
"I manage to stay in touch with my friends and, as far as my grandchildren are concerned, there's something -- I think it's called Skype -- and you can talk to them and see them."
"We'll get her. We'll get her," Sandberg murmured.
Sandberg said technology and social networking can enhance the aging process by removing barriers of time and geography.
Social networking is "helping people share and connect and, as you age, that becomes more important," she said. Facebook's "fastest-growing demographic is people over 65."
Sandberg said Facebook's youthful workforce probably is not well aware of the challenge posed to its generation by aging Baby Boomers.
"I can't speak for a whole generation, but we're great at technology, so tend to be insular in focus. You hear more talk about the new iPhone than about what's happening with Medicare and Social Security," she said.
Sapolsky said advanced aging is "a spectacularly rare event in natural populations.
"When it does occur, often you have what we hope for," the biologist said.
"In elephant populations you have matriarchal social groups and, the older the oldest individual is in the group the better the infant survival rate. You have a 70-year-old matriarch, and she's going to remember which valley it was that had the water last time there was a drought."
Rand, a Stanford MBA whose 40-million-strong organization is a powerful political force, said seniors care about their children and grandchildren and are willing to debate the future of entitlement programs if the issues are framed correctly.
Any discussion of reforming entitlements must exclude "present beneficiaries -- people now on Social Security or approaching Social Security," he said.
"Social security is self-funded and has not contributed anything to the deficit -- it's not a deficit issue," he said.
"The real issue with Social Security -- a 75-year-old a sacred promise we've given to seniors to support their lives and in many cases keeping people from falling off a cliff -- is solvency."
Citing what he said has been a doubling of age discrimination lawsuits in the past two years, Rand said many seniors want nothing more than to keep working and to stay engaged – but the jobs aren't there.
"There have to be job opportunities, so raising the retirement age cannot be discussed in isolation," he said.
Carstensen said people who are "mentally sharp, physically fit and financially secure can do really well in this society as an old person."
The biggest predictor of aging well is education, she said.
"People with high levels of education fare very well to very advanced ages," she said.
"The good news is we can get people to old age doing really well. The bad news is that most people aren't in that category in this country."
Despite concerns about high rates of obesity and diabetes in the younger generation, Americans so far are arriving at age 65 healthier than in the past, Carstensen said.
With 30 years added to the human lifespan in the past century, "we didn't just add years, but most of the years we've added have been healthier, so far."
But Carstensen said "we're headed for a major crisis in all sorts of ways if nothing changes.
"It's extremely important to realize that we've added 30 years to life expectancy in less than a century, but we haven't changed a lot of the way we live, haven't found cures for diseases.
"Aging is going on all over the world, and it's one of the most powerful factors that will influence our futures," she said.
"We think of it as individuals, but we're not talking about it globally -- and it will change every aspect of life, from education to families to financial services."