Sat, Jul 25, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Our aging world is a triumph for humankind, not a catastrophe

We are healthier, living longer and birth rates are falling. Only the most jaded of economists could fail to rejoice at what our society has managed to achieve

By Zoe Williams  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

This week the US census bureau announced that within 10 years and for the first time in history, old people will outnumber young people across the globe. They were careful not to be too judgmental about this — there being so little we can do about it anyway — and concentrated not on consequent problems but on the “challenges to policymakers.” And yet whenever this demographic shift comes up, it is presented in terms of a crisis on one hand and a burden on the other.

Pension areas always in turmoil and dependency ratios, particularly in developed economies, are always dangerously skewed. Various newspapers talked about the bureau having “sounded the alarm,” about the “burden on carers and social services” and “intense pressures on individuals and families.” These are the terms of any discussion about an ageing population — that it represents a calamity. But what if it isn’t calamitous? What if it’s a good thing?

To start with, there is no sweet spot with life expectancy. The orthodoxy is the higher the better. In Zimbabwe a combination of HIV/AIDS, starvation, bad sanitation and the wellspring of these ills, poor governance, has cut life expectancy at birth to 40 years.

In Japan, the country with the highest life expectancy, you can now expect to live to 82. Nowhere in any census or policy document will you see anyone saying “some kind of midpoint would be nice ... 61?” This is for a number of reasons — the most obvious being that people, while they enjoy good health, tend not to want to die.

The rise in the number of the old (and according to this report, the “oldest old,” classified as more than 80) is a massive human success story: Life expectancy increases because of better education, greater wealth, lower infant mortality, better healthcare, less disease, the reduction of armed conflict and the development of technology and its application in pursuit of good. It is frankly insane to look at an aging population and not rejoice. Why do we even have a concept of public health, of cooperation, of sharing knowledge, if not to extend life, wherever we find it?

The problem then is not age as such but the proportion of the aged: Not only will the old outnumber the young globally, but in 11 major nations the population is aging while its numbers simultaneously decline — an unprecedented combination. It will lead to a very substantially increased “older dependency ratio,” which is taken to be damaging to economies.

Again this presentation ignores benefits that are much more significant than any country’s GDP. It is a consensus among environmentalists that a decline in human fertility will, if not solve the planet’s problems, at least give us some breathing space in which to solve them. The specter of Malthus, the world’s most famous Guy Who Was Wrong, muddies the water unnecessarily. Yes, he was wrong; and yes, the neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich fell victim to overblown predictions of catastrophe in the 1960s.

In The Population Bomb, he wrote: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”

That kind of drama didn’t transpire, but he wasn’t far off — 300 million people have died of hunger or related causes since 1967. But just because burgeoning fertility has not been the catastrophe some have claimed, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take heart from its decline. And if fertility does fall, then of course this will tip the balance in favor of the old.

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