Who will take care of us in our old age?

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(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY No matter how much you've prepared and saved for retirement, you'll always depend on your fellow citizens for your well-being. For proof of that proposition, consider these two disturbing trends.

In the coming years, baby boomers are projected to swamp the U.S. health care system, first with diseases of old age, such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and diabetes, and later with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. Will there be enough doctors, nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists, and other medical professionals to take care of us in our later years, particularly if we don't change course and improve our poor eating and exercise habits?

A recent article published by the Society of Actuaries concludes that the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. face major challenges taking care of a graying population. In particular, there's a predicted shortage of primary care physicians in the U.S., since medical school graduates are financially motivated to move into more lucrative specialties. Yet these doctors are the health care professionals who are best positioned to care for the elderly.

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Furthermore, there's a dearth of research into preventing and treating age-related diseases, as well as a shortage of professionals who are trained in geriatric care, as documented in Ken Dychtwald's recent paper "Riding the Age Wave: How Health Care Can Stay Afloat."

Who will produce the goods and services we need?

Highlighting another socially disruptive trend, recent article in Time magazine noted that more than half of all births in the U.S. to mothers under age 30 now occur out of wedlock. The piece describes that shift as a catastrophe, citing evidence that children in two-parent families are more likely to "graduate from high school, finish college, become gainfully employed, and enjoy a stable family life themselves."

And hardly a day goes by without further evidence that the U.S. educational system is falling behind those of other nations. One recent report shows that we face a projected shortfall of 16 million college-educated adults in the country's workforce by 2025. Young Americans today will make history for being the first generation to be less educated, and to earn less and live less comfortably, than their parents, according to The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and Jobs for the Future, which both focus on education policy.

By the same token, today's children and teenagers will go on to become the financial and health care professionals that serve us in our retirement years, as well as produce and deliver the food, pharmaceuticals, and all other goods needed by citizens of all ages. They'll also be the police and fire professionals who help us when we need emergency care. Will our children and grandchildren get the necessary education, training, and values to keep our society going?

All together now

As the saying goes, no person is an island; we're all in this together. Even if you've saved sufficiently for retirement and have medical insurance, you still need to buy goods and services from real people -- our fellow citizens. And the many boomers who don't have sufficient financial and health resources for their retirement years will be competing with the children and grandchildren described above for scarce societal resources from governments, charity, and private citizens.

As a result, I'm more motivated than ever to take care of my financial and physical well-being so I won't be a burden on society, and so I can be in a position to help others. It also inspires me to see how I can volunteer to help my community in my retirement years. I want to be part of the solution, no the problem. I hope you feel this way, too.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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