Trahant: We are like the rest of the world – we’re getting older

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One of the philosophical debates in this election is about the notion of “American exceptionalism.” This is the concept that America is uniquely qualified to lead the world because of our style of democracy, our commitment to capitalism and individual liberty. (If all this sounds familiar it’s because another version of the same song is called “Manifest Destiny.”)

How does this idea play out in 2010 politics? In the Florida Senate race, for example, Republican Marco Rubio told The Palm Beach Post, “We should not be embarrassed to say that America is not just unique, it’s quite frankly better than anything else that has ever existed in the history of mankind.”

So why is this an election issue now? One of the reasons there is so much anger directed toward President Barack Obama – at least from the true conservatives – is that he challenged this very idea. Let’s be clear about this divide. Most Americans, even most in the Tea Party and others who are upset with the direction of this government and the country, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about American exceptionalism. Nonetheless this is the high-octane intellectual fuel that’s powering their movement.

“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” the president said. “I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world.”

He said we, as Americans, have much to be proud about. “And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”

The president is exactly right: We can’t solve these problems alone. And that’s why American exceptionalism is a dangerous way to define this particular election. Pick an issue before us – whether its climate change, the federal budget or the prospect of jobs – and the challenges are global in nature.

Ok. Climate change. That’s global. I get that, says a voice in my head. But the budget, how is that a world problem?

The answer is a demographic one: The people of planet Earth are growing older and living longer. Twenty years from now, one billion people will be over the age of 65. More than that, the world’s population growth has been decelerating for the past 40 years. We’re having smaller families.

“Population aging is unprecedented, without parallel in human history – and the 21st century will witness even more rapid aging than did the century just past,” says a United Nations report. “Population ageing is pervasive, a global phenomenon affecting every man, woman and child – but countries are at very different stages of the process, and the pace of change differs greatly. Countries that started the process later will have less time to adjust.”

That demographic fact adds to our health care burden, which adds to our deficit (plus those promises made to the growing ranks of senior-aged Americans), which alters the jobs picture beyond all recognition.

If nothing else I would like this to be the single election debate. How do we manage through this age imbalance? How can we make sure there’s enough work, given these age dimensions?

This demographic imbalance is one reason I’d like to see renewed emphasis (and real funding) directed at education and training for Native American youth. Indian country’s population is younger than the general U.S. population – a median age of 28 instead of 35.3 – and so every young worker becomes critical to older citizens, those who might one day want to retire. We can’t afford to lose young people any more because of the lack of education or social problems. We need to help them be ready to work.

This unprecedented aging trend is changing everything – and we are like the rest of the world, we Americans are growing older.


Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s new book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.