On Monday, I had a long stretch of document review that needed to be done at work. As is my habit, I turned on a podcast for something to listen to, so that I would not “zone out” while staring at my screen for several hours. One of my selections was a recording from RadioWest by KUER in Salt Lake City on “The Changing Face of Retirement.” The substance of the conversation is not my topic, but rather one particularly interesting exchange between one of the guests, Dr. Ken Dycktwald, an expert in gerontology and economic issues relating to retirement, and a call-in listener.
The listener remarked that she had a good job but was approaching an age when she could retire and claim Social Security benefits. Part of her job involved training young people to perform her job. Her question for Dr. Dycktwald was whether it would be better for society, in the context of the current economic and budgetary crisis, if she chose to retire and allow some younger person to take her job, or if she continued to work so that she was not drawing on Social Security so early in her life. Dr. Dycktwald seemed somewhat perplexed by her question, simply because he had never yet encountered someone who seemed to take societal consequences for such decisions seriously as a factor in making those decisions, or at least more seriously than a personal preference for one option or the other.
Alas, the listener’s attitude is all too rare. Serious reflection on what is best for society as a whole, even if not best for me and my family, is in seriously short supply these days. The problem is particularly endemic in the United States, with its strong individualistic streak. Of course, there are plenty of people who are willing to extrapolate their personal preferences onto the rest of society, passing off their own choices as what the rest of us ought to want. That particular mode of thinking seems particularly ingrained in contemporary American society, and especially in its most vocal elements. But could a more thoughtful contemplation of societal costs and benefits rationalize the tough decisions about economics and governmental budgets that we will inevitably face in the coming years? Nothing would help more.