Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Earlier this month, I travelled to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to watch an Iggy Azalea concert. The trip was something of a disaster: after three hours of commuter traffic, we arrived to discover that the concert had been cancelled.

Stranded in Atlantic City with a hotel room already booked, I decided to do something that I had never done before: wander around the casinos. It was an eye-opening experience. Before my trip, I had associated casinos with glamour, fun and youthful joy; a combination of Monte Carlo, James Bond and a stag party. But the Atlantic City casinos looked more like an electronic opium den designed for senior citizens: the halls were filled with flashing, multicoloured machines, surrounded by clusters of (mostly) shabbily dressed people who, to my surprise, were overwhelmingly elderly.

It’s possible that some of those people were having a great time but their faces did not show it. Instead, most were glued to the slot machines with an expression of pinched intensity, seemingly oblivious to the world around them. Indeed, they barely moved, except to get a (subsidised) drink or withdraw more money from the plentiful ATM machines. And what really startled me was that when I passed through again early next morning, on my way home, people were still glued to those machines — I suspected some had been there all night.

Some readers will just shrug their shoulders at this. After all, gambling is as old as capitalism. And the US has more controls than most western nations. Until recently, casinos could only be located in a few designated spots (such as Atlantic City or Las Vegas or on Indian reservations) and casual sports betting was restricted.

More importantly, mainstream political culture has traditionally viewed the gaming industry with unease, partly because of America’s Puritan heritage. Three decades ago, nobody associated with a casino would have dared to run for high political office. Clearly this has changed. Donald Trump used to own several. Moreover, casino operators such as Sheldon Adelson are big public donors, and Hillary Clinton has held a rally at an Atlantic City casino. As gambling has become more acceptable in a political sense, casinos are proliferating.

Maybe this is inevitable or, at least, a natural consequence of what happens when capitalism meets consumer demand. But what I saw in Atlantic City left me with a sour taste. A couple of years ago, Amy Ziettlow, a Lutheran pastor, did a grassroots investigation into gambling, and found a world where poor retirees were becoming increasingly hooked on slot machines.

That is partly because these senior citizens have more time on their hands. However, it is also because casinos are tapping into this elderly market by presenting themselves as places to combat loneliness and boredom. As a result, more than half of the 100 million visitors each year are over the age of 50 — and they provide the vast majority of the sector’s $66bn-odd revenues. And while the gaming industry insists that addicts are rare, David Oslin, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, estimates that four million older adults in the US have a gambling addiction — and that number is rising.

“I was shocked to learn that seniors often name gambling as their favourite form of entertainment,” Zeittlow observed, in a report that describes numerous scenes similar to those that I encountered: hordes of poor, elderly people glued to slot machines.

Of course, as the gaming industry would indignantly point out, these addiction levels are still much lower than those for other drugs, such as alcohol. And I would not suggest that prohibition might help here. In any case, polls suggest that most Americans want the gambling controls loosened, not tightened. But, if nothing else, it seems that there needs to be more debate. One of the (ironic) consequences of the earlier regulations is that because gambling usually takes place out of sight of mainstream America, in segregated areas, it is very easy for non-gamblers to ignore what is going on. Unless you happen to stumble into a casino by accident.

Maybe policy makers, pundits and elites should all be made to spend a night stranded in Atlantic City, where they too can take a closer look at what is driving the casino industry today. Gambling has always had a seamy, exploitative side. But the rise of silver-haired punters gives this world a whole new twist; if not a sense of 21st-century tragedy.


Illustration by Ulla Puggaard

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article