The fundamental question for our society is always Abraham Lincoln’s: Shall the government of the people, by the people, for the people perish from the earth? Can we the people of this union of states find ways to expand our sense of “we” sufficiently to accommodate the technological forces and social aspirations that our liberty creates, while still remaining together as a nation?

In the Great Liberator’s time, that challenge was slavery. We fought a great war, and the legacy of racism remains a threat to our common sense of “we.”

But we have made progress, and our experiment in democracy continues. Over much of the past century, this challenge has spread to the female half of our “we.” Women have gained rights to full participation in the democratic process, and their movement into the labor force over the last half-century has unleashed an explosion of wealth that has reached and transformed every segment of our society.

The major challenge to our sense of “we” over the next half-century will be our struggle to redefine our social institutions to include the elderly, a group that a century ago would have presented no problems because they would long since have been dead.

One hundred years ago, average life expectancy in our nation was barely 40 years. Today it is pushing 80 years. One hundred years ago, “we” constituted a demographic pyramid – lots of very young people and progressively fewer people in each older age cohort.

And over that 100 years, we have built our social institutions – education, physical and social infrastructure, labor regulations, mechanisms for providing health care and retirement – on the economic and actuarial assumptions derived from such a pyramidal demography.

Yet today, technological progress in medicine and public health – an expanded food supply, clean air and water, and safer waste disposal – have combined to make our demographic structure more closely resemble a rectangle, with more or less equal numbers in each age cohort. While this changing age structure will have profound effects on all cohorts, the greatest challenge to our social institutions will result from the elderly, since they are the population that wasn’t here before.

Like former slaves and women in earlier eras, they will be the “invisible” population, the part of our “we” our institutions never considered before.

And, as was true for former slaves and women, inclusion of the elderly in our collective “we” will force radical and unforeseen changes in all our social institutions.

In a culture that has long been obsessed with youth, beauty and celebrity, the elderly are most easily understood as defective young people, machines that are wearing out, need replacement parts and places to rest because they can’t perform the way they used to.

While natural, such an analogy is inadequate, because it both shortchanges and leaves unexplored the innate characteristics of being old … and older … and older.

If we have learned anything about racism in our efforts to include people of color in our collective “we,” it is that they are not “defective white people” who need help in adjusting to white institutions. If we have learned anything about sexism in our efforts to include women fully in our collective “we,” it is that they are not “defective men” who need help fitting into male institutions.

Just as we have expanded our sense of who “we” are, so have we expanded our sense of how “we” operate. Our social institutions don’t simply accept new participants, they are reshaped by the nature and character of these new participants.

So it must be with the elderly. The system of payroll taxes paid by those who work to cover the living and health care needs of those who no longer work is simply unsustainable at our currently defined working lifespan. We must redefine work and retirement to incorporate the unique (and today largely undiscovered) qualities of those over age 65.

We need to loosen the rules about when, how and where work occurs. We need to separate work and income.

And, most importantly, we must see this task as but the most recent in a continuous series of challenges to acknowledge, understand and welcome into our collective “we” the ceaseless diversity of our human nature.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

clawton@planningdecisions.com