Senior Assumptions

Richard Quinn

THERE ARE ADVANTAGES to being old. We seniors can leverage the widespread perception that we’re all poor, incapable of decision-making and inept at using technology.

I have fun with this.

We recently went car shopping. As we left the house, my wife turned and said, “You’re going dressed like that?”

“What’s wrong with the way I look?” I’m in my well-worn jeans, flannel shirt, suspenders and battered baseball cap.

“You look like a pauper.”

Ah, but that’s the idea. I could sense the initial lack of enthusiasm by the Jaguar salesman. Imagine what he thought when my 80-year-old wife scrutinized the sales agreement and told him we were overcharged by $314.85. They sent us a check.

In the good old days, when my wife and I would go out to eat, we’d occasionally receive the bill with a discount applied. I would delight in asking why the discount. “It’s a senior discount,” I’m told, whereupon I’d ask how the server knows I’m a senior.

Discounts abound for older Americans, all under the assumption we need them without regard to actual income or wealth. I play golf a couple of times a week and receive a reduced fee simply because I’m over age 65. Think about that: I can afford to play golf as often as I want—and yet somebody else is willing to subsidize me.

A senior discount on public transportation is one thing. But on a cruise? Yes, those also exist.

My wife recently had dental surgery. The bill was nearly $3,000, but that’s before a senior discount brought it down to $1,950. Our income is higher than that of the typical oral surgeon.

We seniors even get a break on our taxes. Are you age 65 or older? For the 2021 tax year, your standard deduction is typically bumped up by $1,350 per person if you’re married and $1,700 if you’re single.

My favorite senior insult occurs when calling a customer service line. After the representative determines your age, the tone of the conversation changes. Sometimes, I feel like I’m back in first grade, as the teacher slowly repeats each point. On occasion, I make it known they aren’t talking to a child.

If the topic is technology, it gets worse quickly. Give me a break: Yes, I’m watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet—but I’m streaming it via YouTube on my TV or iPad. Okay, an eight-year-old grandson showed me how to do it. But he only had to show me once.

Assumptions about us seniors go beyond our basic cognitive abilities. Didn’t you know all seniors struggle financially? Have you ever heard a politician who didn’t use that broad generalization?

Of course, there are seniors who reach retirement after a life of low income and then find retirement to be even worse. Certainly, many seniors do struggle. But while Social Security is the bulk of retirement income for half of all seniors, that doesn’t mean broad generalizations are appropriate. Overall, Social Security benefits represent about 33% of the income of the elderly.

Such data points rely heavily on surveys. That raises the question of whether respondents are using a uniform definition of income, such as including interest, dividends and various government subsidies. And keep in mind that income is not the same as assets. Based on her income, my elderly aunt applied for and received a freeze on her property taxes. Meanwhile, she owned two houses, as well as a condo in Florida.

Moreover, at least 50% of seniors are no worse off than many younger Americans. In fact, Americans age 65 to 74 have the country’s highest median and average net worth, with even older Americans not far behind. Maybe it’s all those discounts we receive.

A recent USA Today article concluded that older Americans are struggling financially because of the pandemic, noting that 68 million “rely” on Social Security and they received a modest 1.3% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) because of “paltry inflation.” Who’ll challenge such broad generalizations? Let me start.

Thanks to the pandemic, many retired seniors are saving money because of the inability to travel, dine out and engage in other activities. In addition, many retirees tell me they’ve done quite well with their investments over the past year. And, no, not all 68 million older Americans rely on Social Security. What about that COLA that’s just 1.3% because of paltry inflation? Talk about stating the obvious. Isn’t a COLA supposed to reflect inflation?

The reality is, our view of senior Americans relies on often-repeated assumptions and generalizations. But while those assumptions might apply to 50% of us, they have an outsized influence—because we’ve bamboozled 100% of struggling younger Americans into picking up the discount and subsidy tab for 100% of us old codgers.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, he was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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