A World Grown Old: Finding a Place for Antedeluvians in the New World Order. (Perspectives)

By Seabrook, Jeremy | Harvard International Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

A World Grown Old: Finding a Place for Antedeluvians in the New World Order. (Perspectives)


Seabrook, Jeremy, Harvard International Review


The results of the 2001 British census reveal that for the first time since the inaugural British census two centuries ago, the number of people over 60 now exceeds the number under 16. More than one million people are over 85--five times as many as there were 50 years ago. Many developed countries seem incapable of replenishing their own populations. A variety of potential causes have been advanced, ranging from the hedonistic temperament of the age to the high cost of having children. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that between US$121,000 and US$241,000 are required to raise a child, and a baby born today will require even greater expenditures. By the age of 17, these infants will have consumed between US$171,000 and US$340,000, leading some to view children as expensive luxuries.

The consequences for the developed world are alarming. If present trends continue, Germany's falling birth rate will leave half of the German population over 60 by 2050. The population would fall by between 16 and 23 million, from its present level of 82 million. Related concerns have been expressed about the future of Japan, Italy, and Spain. Similarly, Britain will have a modest 34 percent of its population over 60 by 2050, while the United States will have about 30 percent.

Immigration and Employment

The implications for medical, social welfare, and healthcare systems are grave. Some suggest that the retirement age will have to rise to 70 or even 72 in order to maintain current levels of health and social welfare benefits. To avoid this crisis, Europe will need at least an estimated 100 million immigrants in the next 25 years.

Such immigrants would come mainly from the countries in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. The Sussmuth Commission in Germany recently recommended radical changes in immigration policy; including allowing up to 50,000 foreign workers into the country, despite the fact that nine percent of the population is already born abroad. In contrast, the figure in the United States stands at about 11 percent. Britain, too, has recently begun a fast-track system of processing immigrants who possess skills that can satisfy the country's labor shortage. Immigrants with skills in information technology, medicine, tourism, and catering are especially in demand. Even unskilled laborers go through the fast-track system on their way to seasonal fruit- and vegetable-picking jobs.

Concern over how immigrants will be absorbed by "graying" societies has caused commentators to neglect the draining effect on the countries that will provide the West's highly qualified immigrants. Indeed, all the rhetoric about the developing world assumes that the principal problem is population growth and control. It seems that ancient battles continue even when they have been overtaken by more urgent realities. Instead of fixating on the population explosion in developing countries, developed states should address more pressing questions concerning the demographic composition of that population, which, as it stabilizes, will create an imbalance in the age structure of the global population as a whole. China's one-child policy will produce 400 million people over 60 within a generation, while India expects its over 60 population to grow from 77 million today to 177 million within 20 years. The West grew rich before it grew old, but it seems that the South is destined to grow old first. What that implies f or its chances of growing rich later has yet to be explored.

Little thought has been given to how the growing age imbalance is to be addressed, especially in the developing world. It is scarcely to be expected that a society will make provisions for the day when almost half of its members will be of retirement age.

The Elderly Poor

The former head of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Aging and Life Course Program, Alexandre Kache, recently pointed out the inability of the developing world to accommodate the demographic shift toward a disproportionately large elderly class: "For the developing countries, pensions, in the sense of the developed world, are pie in the sky. …

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