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The Graying Population: One Gigantic Worry

An award-winning author explains why he’s so concerned about today's aging world

By David Berreby | February 28, 2013
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David Berreby writes about the intersection of science and human affairs. He writes the Mind Matters blog for Bigthink.com and is the author of Us and Them: The Science of Identity. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Smithsonian, Discover and many other publications.

Did you see this year's Super Bowl Taco Bell ad full of granddads and grandmas partying hard, getting tattoos, jumping into a pool and eating fast food? Then you've seen a vivid illustration of today’s myth of aging.
 
As we boomers and post-boomers get on in years, our world is supposed to remain what it is today — with more salt-and-pepper hair and progressive lenses. Get ready, say the “hucksters of longevity,” we're all going to spend 30 or 40 years being 35!
 
Worrying About Us, Not About Me
 
Deep down, most of us know this is a fantasy. We know there’s no standing still, in mind or body, and that aging continues year after year. I’m in my mid-50s and not much worried (yet) about how these passages will affect me personally. But I am very worried about how aging populations will affect the world.
 
(MORE: The U.S. Is Aging Faster Than Anticipated)
 
In the next few decades, the average age of the human population will be higher than ever.  
 
The middle-aged and late-middle-aged people will be an unprecedentedly big proportion of most rich nations and many developing ones. Last year, according to the United Nations Population Fund, people age 60 or older represented about 12 percent of the world’s population. By 2050, they’ll make up almost a quarter of the global population, some 2 billion people. The number of Americans 65 and older is expected to double in the next 30 years, according to recent Census Bureau projections.
 
The number of “old old” people (those beyond 85) will be at historic levels, too.
 
The rise in the numbers and influence of the middle-aged and the truly old can be celebrated as triumphs of public health and prosperity. But they’re also major disruptions for which the world’s societies are unprepared.
 
Poor and Wealthy Nations Alike
 
Rich nations are leading the way, but the graying trend is truly global.
 
By 2050, the median age in China, now 35, is projected to rise to 49; India's population of people age 60-80 will be 326 percent larger and nearly a quarter of Brazil’s residents will be elderly, compared with 7 percent now.
 
There are still large nations in Asia and Africa undergoing classic population explosions, which will leave them teeming with young people at midcentury. But they’ll be exceptions to the aging trend.
 
The big shift in so many countries will result in giant social changes. Some of those, undoubtedly, will strike most people as positive ones. For example, older people tend to consume less, so the graying of the world will likely pay a green dividend.
 
Safety Nets With Holes
 
But let's be realistic: The downsides of global graying will outweigh the advantages.
 
First, consider the social safety net. In the 20th century, industrialized nations in Europe, the Americas and Asia established public welfare systems that are still in place and amount to a bargain between generations. The deal is simple: One generation works, then retires and is supported by the next, which is then supported by its successor.
 
This contract only succeeds, though, when the next generation is sufficiently large enough to support the previous generation's retirees. That was the case for the past 100 years. But with global graying, it won't be true for long.
 
China, for example, now has about six workers for each retired person. That’ll be more like two workers per retiree by 2050, based on population forecasts.
 
(MORE: Why We Live Longer and Can Still Live Better)
 
We’re looking at a prescription for labor shortages, falling production and political uproar as it becomes impossible to pay for promised pensions and health care for older people.
 
Dementia Will Be a Looming Problem
 
And, of course, the future aged will need more help from their younger cohorts than they do currently, due to longer life spans.
 
Today, we worry about how to deal with the immense challenges of dementia in a world where some 36 million people suffer from the disease. In 2050, according to estimates by the World Health Organization, the world will have roughly 2 billion people coping with dementia. If, as expected, the total population will be 9 billion at that time, nearly 1 person in 5 will have the condition.
 
More Kids, More Immigrants
 
The aging world is the reason so many nations are encouraging their citizens to have more children, through tax breaks and outright subsidies, and why China is likely soon to relax its "one child" policy.
 
Aside from making more young people, how else do you forestall a future crisis paying for social welfare programs? One possibility is to raise the retirement age, so workers support retirees for longer. But that's not acceptable for a number of practical and political reasons. In a number of countries, like Italy and Spain, the retirement age would have to hit the late 70s for the math to work.
 
The other way to assure enough workers to support retirees is to import people. The nations that won't experience a massive graying will have millions more young citizens than jobs. But big waves of immigration would require changing people’s views on the subject.
 
Aging and the Resistance to Change
 
That brings me to the second big problem with an aging world.
 
The thing about the ability to change one's mind, to be open to new ideas and experiments, to accept that the future can and will be different from the past: These are all characteristics of younger people. But as the average age rises, it’s reasonable to suppose that younger voices will get fainter.
 
Back in the 1990s, when Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky noticed he didn't like his young research assistants' musical tastes, he actually conducted tests to see when and how people cease to be open to new experiences. Sapolsky concluded that the window for being willing to try new music closed at age 35; openness to new foods ended around age 39. (See Next Avenue’s blog post, "The Upside of Changing Your Habits in Midlife," for more about how we get set in our ways.)
 
It's also well established that middle age is a time when discontent and depression are far more frequent than they are in youth (or, to be fair, in old age). A decline in life satisfaction is a worldwide trait of middle-aged populations, striking rich and poor nations alike.
 
(MORE: Why You May Not Live as Long as You Think)
 
It may be a biological fact of life for our whole section of evolution's family tree: Last year, Alexander Weiss of the University of Edinburgh and his colleagues examined records on more than 500 great apes and found that chimpanzees and orangutans experienced the same psychological sag at midlife as their human cousins. (This suggests that middle-aged weltschmerz can't be cured by yoga classes, power walking and book clubs.)
 
In democracies around the world, where votes count, I fear society will be less open to change — at just the juncture where change will be essential.
 
So don't be fooled by slogans like "50 is the new 40" or by TV commercials featuring assisted living facilities filled with slim, vigorous people acting like antic youngsters. The graying of society isn't going to be fun and it isn't going to be easy.
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