Thank you, Mr. Reeves, for your very kind introduction and especially for inviting me to join all of you today to set priorities regarding the issues that are most important to you, our state and our country.
I have had the great honor and pleasure of working closely with the Senior Lobby while I was a legislator for 20 years prior to becoming Lt. Governor, and I remain a very strong supporter of your issues and of the Senior Lobby. Of course, when you receive an invitation from Bruce Reeves, it is one that you just can’t say “no” to. The work he provides is one of the reasons why the Lobby is so successful. However, if retirement means that I have to work as hard as he does as a retired volunteer I think I’m going to consider retirement long and hard before I make the commitment.
The Senior Lobby has been an institution of great effectiveness and direct help to all the people of this state. Many of you here today have wisely invested your volunteer time to help solve many critical issues not only affecting the elderly today but also future generations. You can be proud of knowing that by voicing the concerns of those who may not have the capacity to voice their own concerns, you have given Washington a legacy of caring and services that is the envy of many other states.
Together you are creating a better world for all of us by giving us a work environment where we will not be discriminated against by age. You are helping create protections in our communities so we won’t be victimized by telemarketing fraud and other predatory business tactics. Most importantly, you are also providing a committed voice and standing strong in your fight so all of us can be able to exercise multiple choices and options concerning health care, housing, mental health, and long-term care. This vital work transcends all ages and we will reap the fruits of your hard work for many generations to come. Early in the 17th century, on the James River, Captain Christopher Newport gave the frightened and discouraged settlers of nearby Jamestown the good news that reinforcements of men and supplies had finally arrived - thus enabling America's first non-native settlement to survive, and the construction of the foundation for our great nation to carry forward. Today, we stand at the beginning of another century, the 21st. For the Jamestown settlers, their revolution would wait for another century. For us, our aging revolution has already begun. The challenges we face as a nation and a people in dealing with this revolution are serious. And, unless we begin to understand and face up to these challenges, the consequences will reverberate right down to that very foundation of our society that those Jamestown settlers so bravely helped build. Understanding these challenges, setting priorities, and finding solutions will not be easy. But, together we must clearly focus on the challenges before it becomes a crisis.
In the United States a hundred years ago, about 4 percent of the population was over 65. By 1950, it was 8 percent. Today it is around 13 percent. By 2030, it will likely exceed 20 percent. This is a demographic trend that will change everything. Dealing with it, in one form or another, will very likely be the dominant public issue for the first half of this century and that is what the Senior Lobby is dedicated to addressing and that is why setting priorities now is important. So you see that all of you, and especially Bruce, have lots of work to do for the next thirty years. I think you can call this unwanted job security. On a more serious note, if we are to make sound, informed policy choices, we need to first understand the world we are heading into. We all need to realize that the future of our country is inextricably bound up with the future of aging. Together you need to let policy makers understand what this future means and how you best think it can be shaped. There are three great forces combining to create this tsunami age wave. The first factor is obviously longevity -- people are simply living longer. Americans have added 28 years to the average life expectancy over the last century. The 2000 census shows that the population segment known as the "oldest old," those over 85, is the fastest growing of all. Do you think this will affect health and long-term care as we know it now? The second force is the approaching retirement of the baby boomers. The oldest of this generation of 76 million will reach 65 in just five years. By sheer mass, the boomers have defined the center of gravity in American life from childhood on. As their numbers are added to the long-lived seniors ahead of them, markets, media and politics will have to focus on the elderly and their needs. The third force is the countertrend, the "baby bust" that followed the boomers. For three decades, there have been less than two-point-one children born per woman of childbearing age, which means that, as a nation, we are not replacing ourselves. When you add these forces together and project them into the future, you see an astonishing effect that amounts to an inversion of the normal "pyramid of age." Nothing like this has ever happened in recorded history and with it come a dilemma that threatens to tear at the very fabric of our society. But what are the implications? What does the age wave really mean for America? Is it to be feared or welcomed? And, what should the Senior Lobby do to set priorities and to focus on the most critical issues? This is the question before us today. The answer that has worked for so long -- taxing current workers to support current retirees may not work much longer. That’s the significance of the baby bust. In the meantime, the main course of action that many public officials seem to have embraced is an effort to contain the costs of the benefits provided. This is a natural reaction, but one that needs to be carefully monitored. Health care, and especially the pharmaceutical industry, are right in the cross hairs of this effort and now you are here today to help determine the fate of this critical issue. Waiting may not be an option, but any action must be clearly laid out with viable options that can be implemented and funded.
When I was growing up my mother worked very, very hard to support our family. We lived for a short while in public housing. But fortunately my mom, through hard work, perseverance and dedication, managed to move us out of public housing. Through this process, I learned the value of hard work, the need to have a cohesive family, and how to establish priorities. I also learned that sometimes even though life is a struggle there is hope and with that hope there is responsibility. I believe we all have a responsibility to give back to the community, just like many of you here today are unselfishly doing. I also learned that we have a responsibility never to turn our backs on those who are truly the most needy and vulnerable. This is a priority.
And that’s the background that led me to be a firm champion of “helping families grow up healthy in safe communities with opportunity” the motto of my office. I am committed to this priority and the hard work it will take to accomplish this. That’s why I am in every school in our state that will invite me to speak to them. And that’s why I’ve always embraced making sure that we take care of our parents and grandparents—our seniors.
My mother is still extremely active and I have to tell you, I’m still learning from her every single day. One of the important things that I have learned form her, is that that deep-in-the-heart desire for independence doesn’t diminish with age. As all of you here today know, it doesn’t even fade with age. In fact, it increases with age. My mother is very independent and travels as much as possible between her home here in Shelton, her winter home in Arizona, and all points in between. She fights tooth and nail to hold onto every thread of independence that she can.
We all struggle for independence in different ways, which is why it’s imperative that as we age we have options. As Americans, we never give up the need for freedom of choice. That is what makes our nation great.
Today you are here at this conference to provide a forum to preserve your freedom to have meaningful choices about things that affect your life. Choices that will allow each and everyone of you to maintain your dignity, your health, and your hope for a better tomorrow. These choices are not just for you but also for future generations. I join you today in support of this important cause, because I want no less for you than I want for my mother and all families.
As a society we must make choices that are based on the priorities that maintain the dignity of people. We in government are in the business of tightening our belts and setting priorities.
Your efforts today will help set these priorities. These priorities must include improving health care policy in our state, supporting the continuing progress and innovation in long term care to meet the challenges ahead, and developing a low cost and rational approach to obtaining life-saving pharmaceuticals. We also need to make sure it’s the doctors and the patients who make medical decisions, not the accountants!
Thank you all for being here today and for your support of the Senior Lobby. The only way we’ll be able to accomplish everything that faces us during these difficult times, is if we all—citizens, businesses, government and schools, non-profits, churches—all work together to improve the lives of all of our citizens. The old, the young, the rural, the urban—all of us working together to improve the lives of Washingtonians. I very much appreciate the great work the Senior Lobby has done over the years. You work hard every day for a cause that is becoming increasingly more complicated and compelling. You insist on maintaining the dignity of our seniors, but also always look out for our young. Making sure that Washington is the best place to live, to work, and to raise a family. I applaud you for keeping this a priority. Thank you.