WETZSTEIN: Old to surpass young shortly
When a worldwide phenomenon is happening for “first time in human history,” it bears a closer look, wouldn’t you think?
And yet a blockbuster of a federal report on how the world is aging received fairly modest coverage in the media.
I can think of several reasons why “An Aging World: 2008,” released by the Census Bureau on behalf of the National Institute on Aging (NIA), might be a blip on the news radar. After all, there’s Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s scuffle with police, President Obama’s health care reform ,and more breaking news on Michael Jackson’s death to keep everyone busy.
But the news in the 204-page Census Bureau report dwarfs all that and more.
It says that within 10 years, the number of people in the world aged 65 and older will be greater than the number of people aged 5 and under.
This turnaround will be occurring for “the first time in human history - and it probably will be true for the rest of human history,” says Richard Suzman, director of the NIA Division of Behavioral and Social Research.
And, the report adds, not only will old people outnumber young people for the foreseeable future, in many countries, the total population will shrink, as well. Germans, Russians and Japanese, for instance, are abstaining from childbearing so effectively that it won’t be long before their populations start falling by millions of people every decade.
These megatrends of aging and shrinking populations have “never happened before, and we don’t fully understand what the consequences are going to be,” Mr. Suzman says.
I try not to be a Cassandra, so don’t expect me to predict the end of times. But the key point is simple.
Historically, people have ordered their governments, economies, educational systems, retirement systems, health care systems, business plans and everything else in life around the idea that there would be a new generation to carry it all forward.
These expectations were sound because there have always been more children, youth and young adults than elderly.
Now this is reversing. And because it’s unprecedented, there aren’t any how-to manuals or 10-point plans to show us how to rearrange our systems to prosper in the new paradigm.
The transition may get very rough. Demographics are a “relentless maker and breaker of civilizations,” researchers Neil Howe and Richard Jackson wrote in a January commentary piece in The Washington Post. Economic stagnation is likely, as well as “ugly political battles” between elderly voters and tax-burdened young workers. In China and elsewhere, millions of old people may sink into poverty “without pensions, without health care and without children to support them.”
It doesn’t help that policymakers get glazed eyes when faced with this kind of mind-boggling information. “It’s always hard to think out of one’s cohort … out of the box, so to speak,” Mr. Suzman says.