Do America's seniors really need those discounts?

  • Article by: STEVE BERG
  • Updated: June 1, 2013 - 4:49 PM

Some do, sure. But most of us are doing OK. Maybe we can still help to carry our nation’s burdens.

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Standing in line at the neighborhood movie house brings anticipation, yes, but also ambivalence. I love the movies, but I’m not sure I love the senior discount.

Not that I don’t enjoy paying less. I do. But why do I deserve a discount while others in line, most of whom appear to be struggling students and young adults, are forced to subsidize me and my gray-haired friends just because we’ve reached a certain age?

It’s a question that underlies much of generational politics these days, most notably the debate over how to curb the soaring cost of social insurance benefits as the postwar mega-generation begins to pass through old age. The seniors’ lobby and the Democratic left are (in AARP’s words) “deeply dismayed” that President Obama wants to slow the growth of Social Security benefits — slightly — and charge wealthier seniors a bit more for Medicare.

My question is: Why not? It’s our deficit, too. And most of us can afford to chip in. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that from 1984 to 2009, the median net worth for households headed by people 65 and older rose by 42 percent, while the net worth for households headed by people under 35 dropped by an amazing 68 percent.

Our generation, on the cusp of retirement, is doing much better than past generations of retirees and far better than younger workers who would love to have our “fixed incomes.” Indeed, most younger workers will probably never have the stable jobs with benefits, the homeownership rates or the job-related pensions that so many of us enjoyed during our working lives and still enjoy.

Not even the recession hurt our generation that badly. While net worth declined across the board after 2008, households headed by 65- to 74-year-olds suffered the least financial damage, the Federal Reserve reported.

One reason we seniors are doing so well, of course, is the smashing success of our so-called entitlements. They provide a base of stability and confidence at a critical juncture in life. Until Social Security came along in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s, older Americans were among society’s most impoverished groups. Now, with the tables turned, it’s ironic (or maybe it’s just the American way) that people with advantages should be lavished with more advantages — in this case, senior discounts for movies, restaurant meals, rental cars, airline tickets, hotel rooms, train and bus tickets, haircuts, clothing, Broadway shows, groceries, cruises, you name it.

I can think of only three possible reasons for this. One is pity. Maybe society feels sorry for us and wants us to enjoy life to the fullest while we still can. Another is honor. Maybe society wants to honor us in the same way it honors war veterans, or in the same way the Motion Picture Academy hands out lifetime achievement awards to mediocre actors.

But somehow I doubt those altruistic reasons and lean heavily toward a third possibility: We’re good for business.

Apparently my question about whether we deserve a discount is beside the point. The real point, I’m told, is that businesses can make money by targeting seniors. At 40 million strong, we are the largest and fastest-growing market segment. We have time. We have money. And we share another key characteristic: We’re cheap. Even those of us who don’t need to scrimp make a hobby of frugality. As economists Scott Wallsten and Robert Hahn advise: “Don’t get caught blocking the entrance to the Boca Raton Sizzler when it opens for the early-bird special.”

Alert businesses have discovered they can fill early seats in restaurants and weekday matinees at cinemas by appealing to seniors’ flexibility and flinty instincts. It’s just one example of “price discrimination,” a strategy that uses ladies’ nights, happy hours and other promotions to beef up off-peak business, said Macalester College economist Timothy Taylor. “We all love price discrimination,” he added, “as long as we’re part of the group that gets the benefits.”

Senior discounts seemed somehow nobler when they first took hold in the high-inflation 1970s. Skyrocketing prices were devouring the savings of retirees as AARP rode to the rescue, boosting its membership by offering discounts that have now become embedded into the aging process as a kind of game. Appeals to play the game start rolling in when people reach their late 40s, promising steep discounts for pre-seniors still in their fifties.

I should pause here to stipulate that discounts are not a game for the 3.5 million seniors who live in poverty, a figure that, according to the census, rises to 6.2 million when health care costs are factored in. That’s about 15 percent of the total senior population. Millions more have had their retirements diminished by falling equity in their homes.

Moreover, the prospects aren’t so good for future retirees. As AARP’s CEO A. Barry Rand points out, 30 percent of the current middle class will fall into poverty after retirement unless soaring medical costs are somehow controlled.

Finding ways to sustain Medicare and Social Security for future generations, even if it requires sacrifice from us current seniors, seems like an imperative. We who can afford it — which means most of us — should do it happily.

As for the discounts we seniors enjoy? Maybe we should view them as small tokens of thanks for chipping in now to save Social Security and Medicare for our children and grandchildren. Maybe my friend Steve had it right when we talked about the senior-discount phenomenon over lunch the other day. “It bothered me for five or six minutes,” he said. “Then I got over it.”

Steve Berg is a writer and urban-design consultant.

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