What We Can All Learn From a Prehistoric Fish

Last Wednesday, during a New York Financial Writers’ Association event at The New York Times Building in Manhattan, the veteran journalist Myron Kandel stood up and said, “When I started working here 71 years ago …”

I’ll get to what he said next, but I want to linger on that remarkable phrase. We had among us that evening someone who could give a firsthand report on what it was like to work at this newspaper more than seven decades ago. That is precious. It got me thinking about how much wisdom, experience and tribal knowledge old people have and how the rest of us underuse it.

I also started thinking about the coelacanth — a fish that was believed to have gone extinct 65 million years ago until one turned up in a fishing net in the 1930s. The coelacanth is sometimes called a living fossil, a messenger to the present from the age of the dinosaurs.

As emissaries from the past, old people play the same role in society as the coelacanth plays in biology. And I say this as someone who was teasingly called a coelacanth when I was still in my 50s. (Thanks, Roben Farzad.)

The world is aging. The number of centenarians has passed half a million, more than 20 times as many as in the 1960s. Economists often portray societal aging — and the ever-rising old-age dependency ratio — as a financial burden. In many respects it is. But there’s a potential upside as well. The world’s elderly have stories to tell, love to give and, for some, work still to do.

Some old people don’t wait to be asked to contribute. Kandel is one of them. He was 21 when he started as a $27-a-week weekend copy boy at The Times in April 1951. He left after 12 years and became the financial editor at three newspapers and then the founding financial editor of CNN in 1980. After retiring from CNN in 2005 at age 75, he became president of New Hampshire’s newly formed Initiative for Corporate Responsibility and Investor Protection, which brought government, business, educational and media leaders together to discuss corporate governance issues. Having turned 93 this week, he remains one of the most active members in the New York Financial Writers’ Association (of which I’m serving a two-year term as president).

I’m inspired by Kandel and by others who just won’t quit, including my friend Leonard Sloane, a Times veteran who continues to freelance for The Wall Street Journal at 91.

In contrast to those superannuated supermen, many old people spend their days surrounded only by other old people, not sharing what they have to give and not being stretched, tested and rejuvenated by younger people. For some it’s a choice, and that’s fine. For many, though, it’s simply a default. They’re not aware of or able to use other options. Or they may face age discrimination, an all-too-real problem.

One great option for mutual understanding is intergenerational housing, where young and old live together. The generations “have never needed one another as much as they do today,” the founders of Generations United, a nonprofit that promotes programs and policies that connect people of different age groups, announced at its opening in 1986. That’s even more true now.

I like the platform of Generations Working Together, which aims to make Scotland the first “intergenerational nation” by 2030. Research suggests that the benefits of intergenerational exchange can run both ways. One study from Taiwan, for example, found that older people who provided grandchild care had lower rates of loneliness and depression.

Not to say that everything about the past was great. We wouldn’t want people who were raised in an era of unapologetic racism and sexism to bring those values with them into the present. I’m thinking of Austin Powers, the international man of mystery, behaving badly when transported from the Swinging Sixties. A true living fossil, someone whose thinking was unchanged from 80 or 90 or 100 years ago, would be a scary person.

Fortunately, people do change. As do other organisms: Scientists now believe that so-called living fossils aren’t precisely the same as their ancestors. Prehistoric creatures such as the coelacanth and the horseshoe crab have undergone “genetic drift” over millions of years.

Now I’ll tell you how Kandel finished his sentence last week. He mentioned that it was International Women’s Day, and he told the story of a financial writer at The Times, Clare Reckert, who had to use the byline C.M. Reckert because her editors thought readers wouldn’t trust financial information from a woman. (The same thing happened to the great Sylvia Porter, who began her journalism career in 1934 as S.F. Porter.) Kandel supported Reckert then, and again later when she busted her way into the New York Financial Writers’ Association, which had been an all-male organization.

Kandel was more enlightened than most, and still is. But we all know parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who have learned to take the modern world in stride while retaining the best values of their youths. Mixing generations allows us to mix the best thinking of past and present. As society ages, taking advantage of what our elders have to give will become more and more important.

Elsewhere: One Obvious Fix for Social Security

Social Security’s trustees now estimate that the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund will run out of money in 2034. If nothing is done, from that point on the system will have to rely solely on monthly revenue from payroll taxes, which will be enough to cover only 77 percent of scheduled benefits.

It’s safe to say the government won’t allow that to happen. One obvious, partial solution is to raise the cap on earnings that are subject to payroll taxation. As this chart shows, the cap covered 90 percent of earnings in 1982. A 1977 measure raised the cap sharply and then indexed it to a national average wage index. But by 2021, only 81.4 percent of earnings were subject to the payroll tax. Very high earners hit the cap and stop contributing to Social Security within days or weeks of the start of a new year.

The increase in income inequality is the main reason for the erosion in the share of income subject to payroll taxes, the Economic Policy Institute pointed out in a blog post in January. The cap rises at the same rate as the national average wage index, but people at the top have seen earnings grow faster than the national average and thus have captured a bigger share of total earnings. Raising the cap so that 90 percent of earnings were once again subject to payroll taxes would be in line with the intention of the 1977 reform. On the other hand, high earners get less out of Social Security than they pay into it. Such a change would make the deal for them even worse.

Quote of the Day

“Economists came to see the economy differently after they had learnt to represent it in models, to express claims about it and reason about it in terms of those models.”

— Mary S. Morgan, “The World in the Model: How Economists Work and Think” (2012)

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