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Boom or bust?

Lifestyle/Technology | Over the next 22 years, 80 million Americans will apply for Social Security

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

Last year Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, at age 62, made history as the first baby boomer (those born between 1946 and 1964) to apply for Social Security. Over the next 22 years, 80 million Americans will join her-and according to Phillip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle, "a huge and unprecedented proportion of this generation is going to be on its own in old age."

Longman in January's The Atlantic pointed out that nearly a fifth of the women born in the mid to late 1950s never had children-that's double the rate of childlessness in the previous generation-and another 17 percent had only one child. He speculates about a future where lonely old people will be "found dead in their homes and apartments . . . only after the stink or a wailing pet dog alerts society."

That won't be the American future, countered Atlantic editor Clive Crook: He wrote that older people will be healthier and living independently longer, with more friends-so it won't much matter if they have kids to care for them.

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Who is right? Longman points to some distressing statistics: Obesity and chronic, long-term diseases like diabetes are increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of U.S. adults were obese in 2005-2006, and baby boomers were the worst, with two out of five forty- and fifty-somethings considered obese. Longman warns that many of these future seniors "will spend years and decades beset by chronic long-term conditions."

Wild, wild East

In the early days of internet crime (1986 to 2003), many hobbyists in the United States, Europe, Australia, and India created viruses not to make money but as a way to perfect their skills. Recently some residents of China, Brazil, and former Soviet Union countries have made money with "malware"-malicious programs used in identity theft, etc. In those lands the number of people with sophisticated computer skills has outpaced the number of legitimate computer jobs.

One Finnish security service provider, F-Secure, predicts that targeted attacks will begin coming from new hotspots in Africa and Mexico. F-Secure notes, "In many countries there will be a delay before the legal system catches up with developments in the IT sector. Computer criminals may also be able to escape the law more easily in countries which are undergoing serious political and security problems."

Price to pay

It won't be easy to be green.

Henry Ford once said the American people could have any color car they wanted as long as it was black. The pressure now on Detroit is to make all cars green: Congress last year passed a law demanding a 40 percent average improvement in fuel economy.

At the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month, Ford showed off its EcoBoost, which improves fuel economy by up to 20 percent by modifying current gas engines with turbochargers and direct-injection technology. It's cheaper than hybrid (part-gas, part-electric) technology. It's estimated that car owners can recoup the added cost in 2.5 years rather than 11.5 years-but when you turn on an EcoBoost, will it get you admiring glances in the Whole Foods parking lot?

Meeting the congressional mandate will also require making cars lighter. According to the Detroit News, the new requirements will force automakers to take 250-750 pounds out of almost every vehicle they make. The cost of meeting the standards: adding $1,500 to $6,000 to the price per vehicle, depending on who is doing the estimating.

The country club vote

Candidates need to be careful when bashing the wealthy. Country clubs may be an easy target in tough economic times, but the Census Bureau says that the nation's 12,261 golf courses and country clubs employ about 312,812 people who make an average salary of $21,280. Any tax policy that targets the wealthy will likely harm these workers more than the guys swinging the golf clubs.

The handmade life

Etsy.com, founded in 2005 by artist Rob Kalin and two friends, is often described as the eBay for do-it-yourselfers. Calling itself "an online marketplace for buying and selling all things handmade," its goal is to help artists/craftspeople find buyers. With a slogan of "Buy, Sell, and Live Handmade," the website has garnered more than 60,000 individual artists selling their handmade creations, including purses, hats, jewelry, ceramics, poker chip magnets, and sweaters.

Baby hater

An Australian professor of medicine, Barry J. Walters, worries, "Every newborn baby in Australia represents a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions for an average of 80 years, not simply by breathing, but by the profligate consumption of resources typical of our society."

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