Keep your fiscal powder dry. Barry Eichengreen

Grey Currency

Aging populations are both a blessing and a curse. What will our world look like when old age becomes the norm?

To be current in today’s world means to be young. It is the young who have the passion, the adaptability, and the raw energy to usher in the new ideas and practices that reshape civilization with each passing generation. But these days, generations aren’t coming and going the way they used to.

The Fertility Shift

As lifespans increase and the number of births decrease, populations that once consisted mostly of young people are aging rapidly. The economic, social, and political realities of the future may very well shift to the needs of an older majority. This new currency of the gray has already taken hold in some parts of the world, and other countries are soon to follow.

In the 1950s, the fertility rate in the United States was roughly four children per woman. Today, it’s at 1.8, which is below the necessary 2.1 replacement level (1 to replace mom, one to replace dad, 0.1 for other variables). America’s population only grows because of immigration. In Germany, the rate has been at 1.4 children per woman for several years now.

To put that into perspective, Germany is a country of over 80 million people, and a fertility rate of 1.4 means it barely had 600,000 births last year. It needs closer to 1 million births per year just to replace its current population. Other countries with below-replacement fertility rates include Brazil, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Iran, Canada, and Chile, among others. Even countries with fertility rates above replacement level are falling fast. The world over, although the population continues to grow, it is growing only half as fast as it did just a few decades ago.

The most consistent statistic to correlate with plummeting fertility rates around the world is not industrialization, war, economic crisis, or even secularism, but education. All over the world, it is clear that when both men and women are granted education and the opportunity to have careers, the average family size shrinks. People now start families later in life with fewer children, or have no children at all. Educated countries with more traditional gender roles can also suffer the fastest drops in fertility. A growing number of educated women everywhere from Russia to Vietnam report seeing family life as a position of subservience, and their careers as a ticket to freedom from the patriarchy.

Population Politics

Many have made the case that the graying of the world due to fewer children is not a bad thing. Overpopulation is a problem, and older populations are a welcomed symptom if they save the planet. The problem is that higher living standards around the world are even more environmentally burdensome than higher populations.

Poor countries where pensions are unreliable and access to education and birth control is limited still have the most children. Nigeria, a country of 171 million (over half the size of the United States) and a fertility rate of over 5 children per woman is exploding with people. But high living standards in the U.S. mean that over the course of a lifetime, one American will consume more natural resources than over 100 Nigerians, who buy less and live shorter lives. If people live longer and need more advanced care to stay alive in their prolonged elderly years, that dramatically increases their carbon footprints, and it worsens environmental problems as a result.

Retirement is another problem. More old people means more retirees, and longer lifespans bring higher pension costs due to longer retirements. Economic demands for care will skyrocket even as economies begin to have fewer working age people to provide services and pay into pension programs. Even with new technology, decades of plummeting birth rates mean that the inevitable labor shortages in coming generations make this problem a certainty across the globe. Old people aren’t likely to vote away their care either. Even today, the old vote more often than the young.

The positive shift

Luckily, not all change will necessarily be bad. Perhaps rampant superficiality will be less common in popular media, which currently markets to teenagers due to both their impressionable minds and large numbers. When we have more seniors than 17-year-olds, this may become less true.

Wars might also be waged less frequently. The most war-torn parts of the world today have some of the world’s youngest overall populations, whereas the most peaceful are the opposite. Education levels might be higher, as people who live longer can have multiple careers and many more years to get better at their professions. Environmentalism may also be a greater concern for the future elderly, because people who live longer will have a greater chance of seeing the damaging effects of climate change.

People continue to live longer. But this age of the old will have at least as many new perspectives as it will new concerns. The young people who are changing lifestyles now may be equally if not more influential on world affairs as senior citizens.

For now, we can only speculate on what will be current and what will be passé in a future where gray is the new black.

Read Newest From Column Jesse Van Mouwerik: The Politics of Prejudice around the “Agreekment”

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