Let Us Now Embrace Our Aging Society

By Moody, Harry R. | Aging Today, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview

Let Us Now Embrace Our Aging Society


Moody, Harry R., Aging Today


Karl Marx once wrote that a "spectre is haunting Europe," namely, the specter of a workers' revolution. Today another phantom is haunting us: the fear of an aging society. A 2010 book by Ted C. Fishman on global population aging, Shock of Gray, offered this subtitle: "The Aging of the World's Population and How It Pits Young against Old, Child against Parent, Worker against Boss, Company against Rival, and Nation against Nation." Though Fishman's book contains excellent insights, the subtitle's message is overwhelmingly negative.

But that's nothing new. Fear of population decline- and of population aginghas a long history, dating back to when it became a national obsession in France in the 19th century.

The same anxiety is widespread today-expressed, for example, in Phillip Longman's 2004 book, The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It. The sooner we get over these fears, the better.

Globally, fertility rates have been rapidly declining for the past 20 years. But that empty cradle is something we should celebrate, not deplore. During the 1960s, global population growth was moving toward 2% per year, feeding the anxiety reflected in Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book, The Population Bomb.

Yet today's fertility rates are less than half what they were in the '60s, and are projected to decline further. Even countries with high fertility rates, like Mexico or Iran, are seeing a drop in birthrates beyond anything expected. By some estimates, global population could hit a peak by mid- century, and then begin to fall by the end of the 21st century. That trend would be accompanied by unprecedented population aging.

Recycling the Life Cycle

But why regard this demographic trend as a disaster? If we find ways to make use of the strengths of an older population, we would see smaller population as a benefit: for example, by reducing the "human footprint" on our planet. But to see the virtues in an aging population will require a massive shift in thinking. To see positives in an aging society requires seeing older people as a resource, not a burden. We need to reimagine the entire life course- a shift I call "recycling the life cycle."

Instead of discarding old or used up materials, recycling invites us to find new uses for old things, just as nature does. We need now to apply the same approach to our aging population, which is humanity's only indefinitely renewable natural resource.

The conditions of life in the 21st century will demand that we rewrite the generational contract to achieve sustainability. Changes will be needed in the following domains:

* Worklife extension. …

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