Summer is here! Well, almost, anyway. But pre-teen adolescents are already packing the cinemas, live-tweeting as one battleship blows up another and sends a svelte scarlet flying through the air only to be rescued by a renegade, half-shaven, twenty-something heartthrob. But if tickets were sold out to the two-star blockbuster, perhaps you settled on The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Though nothing crashes, explodes or flies through the air at warp speed, it might be the best movie of the season.
Sure, the star-studded cast of aging Brits can carry the show without really trying too hard, but the result is very good, indeed. As the British "pensioners" -- in American English that means retirees who get government subsidies -- take us on a funny, if bittersweet, ride through western India, they remind us of something. For all of us over 40 who are proud of our choice to order butter-free popcorn and a diet soda, we might be failing to notice that we, too, are on a rickshaw ride into the unknown.
As this movie suggests, our traditional notions of retirement make no financial sense in the twenty-first century. And if we are obdurate or myopic enough to insist on retiring at the same age as our parents or grandparents, then we might have to outsource our golden years to a place where the dollar, euro, yen or pound sterling carries inflated weight.
In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, seven British "seniors" head to Rajasthan for one of two reasons: either they can't afford to retire in the UK or they need medical treatment they can't get from UK National Health Service, challenged as it is by 21st century aging demographics. Not only are both scenarios increasingly common, but they place the driving tension of the movie well ahead of the political curve.
With life-spans extending a full three decades beyond what they did just a generation ago, the emerging crop of retirees will face this "fictional" situation: what to do when traditional retirement schemes can't be supported by current fiscal realities? But perhaps these emigrating Brits take solace in their departure, joined as they are by the deteriorating economics of Greece, Spain and even the Netherlands.
Director John Madden confronts this very serious question through a fictional comedy. It is hard not to enjoy his light-hearted shrug to what is perhaps the most significant question facing 450 million baby boomers worldwide and a full two billion by mid-century. Yet one can't help but wonder whether Madden's intentions are perhaps ulterior to what they seem. Yes, this sweet comedy leaves audiences smiling for most of its two-hour runtime, but what will viewers think when they get home? For while it is delightful to watch these characters stumble their way through unfamiliar territory (both literally and figuratively), it also forces us to hold up the mirror and examine our own lives through the new economic tensions that make this movie possible.
Imagine how absurd the premise would have seemed just two decades ago.
It is interesting, too, that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn't the only recent movie to throw traditional schemes of retirement into question. The Hollywood movie factory is also in on the game. In addition to last year's Oscars that seemed like an AARP awards ceremony, there's the recent -- if awful -- film Red, starring Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren. Red -- which stands for "retired and extremely dangerous" -- follows a group of retirees who "used to be the CIA's top agents" but are now "the agency's top targets."
Not surprisingly, the film is replete with wincingly bad one-liners. Morgan Freeman announces to his aging buddies after surviving a "hit" on him at his old-age home, "I may be retired, but I'm not dead." And, later on, he quips: "We're getting the band back together," when referring to the once-elite team of CIA agents. Then there is the cute, if-ever-so-true line from Helen Mirren's character. When asked, "How did you make the transition to retirement?," she answers, "I love it. I love the baking, the flower arrangements. I do get a bit restless. I take the odd contract on the side. You can't just switch and become someone else."
Subtle? No. Revealing? Yes. Like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Red is a movie that only makes sense in a world undergoing the most dramatic demographic transformation in human history. Quite purposefully and reflexively, Red breaks the type-casting of Hollywood shoot-em-up blockbusters by using an aging cast. Red is a bad movie, make no mistake, but it also makes a provocative argument: The retirement schemes of all professions, but especially those mandated by federal law, do not fit within new models of life that enjoy health and activity into the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And with more people over 60 than under 14 by mid-century, the challenge is not fictional.
As Red suggests, retirees still have much to contribute, and those who are replacing them in the workforce cannot match their experience and expertise. And Red's focus on the CIA only stretches the argument to the point of hyperbole. Yet, across all sectors of business, the point remains: traditional models of retirement are as relevant today as Technicolor.
If you want a sweet and generous movie, go see the one about "outsourcing old age." If you want a fun, special-effects-driven action flick, check out Red. But be warned: No matter how light the two movies may seem, there is a profound, unsettling message lurking beneath each. They both confront population aging, the most profound transformation of our time.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.