Does an Aging Society Mean an Aging Culture?

By Peterson, Peter G. | The Futurist, January 2000 | Go to article overview
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Does an Aging Society Mean an Aging Culture?


Peterson, Peter G., The Futurist


An aging society may mean less innovation, less risk-taking, and more-conservative values. But it also may mean a wiser culture that is more protective of its assets, including its young people.

In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift imagines a society that includes a special caste of biological freaks called Struldbrugs. What makes the Struldbrugs special is that they never die--though Swift observes that with advancing age they grow ever feebler, both physically and mentally.

Among their many dreadful attributes, these immortals have "no remembrance of anything" but what they learned early in life and have "not the least curiosity" to learn new things. Regarding them as a mere economic burden, the society at large gains nothing from their learning or wisdom--indeed, can no longer even understand the archaic dialect in which they speak.

Swift's satire points to perhaps the most searching question the developed world will have to ask itself as the new millennium begins: How will demographic aging affect society's cultural vitality, its power to innovate and re-imagine the future, and indeed the energy with which it pursues economic and social progress?

As the culture ages, the social temperament will grow more conservative and less flexible. Will this be a good or bad thing? Yes, the crime rate will fall, but so may the taste for innovation and risk. Looking ahead two or three decades, one wonders: Will tomorrow's managers and workers maintain today's enthusiasm about the global cyber-age, which is often described as an endless era of questing, experimenting, and market flux? Will tomorrow's leaders and citizens maintain a willingness to sacrifice their near-term comfort, even their lives, to make the world more secure for posterity?

I hope so. But with the number and influence of youth gradually receding, it might be harder than we imagine.

The Aging of Youth Culture

Especially in the United States, the developed world's obsession with newness, progress, and the future has always derived its energy from the numerical heft of each new rising generation. As recently as 1970, when a new "youth culture" redefined the American Dream, the U.S. median age was only 28--not much higher than the median (about age 18 to 20) of the typical pre-modern society. Today, with the U.S. median age hitting an unprecedented 35, the American public hears a lot less about the ideals of youth than about the worries of the middle-aged and old.

And this is just the beginning: By the year 2030, the median age will reach at least 40 in the United States and at least the late 40s in much of Europe. Back when America's baby boomers were warning each other, "Don't trust anyone over 30," Americans over 30 were in the minority. Over the foreseeable future, they are certain to remain a solid majority. By the year 2030, over one-half of all adults wilt be aged 50 and over--and thus eligible to join AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons). While this 50-and-over crowd will outnumber all younger adults in the United States, in some European countries it will outnumber all younger adults and all children.

What do these numbers mean for our culture? Clearly, they mean a much greater focus on the interests and activities of the old over those of the young. For decades, the mass media in the United States and around the world--TV, movies, popular music, and radio--have aggressively courted the all-important under-50 "demo" (demographic). How will the business, as well as the substance, of popular culture change as it becomes evident that the elderly represent the fastest-growing component of the total population and youth the fastest-shrinking one?

We should not be surprised to see pension issues eclipsing college issues on the front pages of newspapers. Yet the numbers may have a deeper influence. Along with experience and wisdom, it has long been observed that old age brings with it an aversion to risk and change.

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