Ageing Societies Are Not the End of the World
Scott L. Montgomery argues that the specter of global ageing shouldn’t haunt the present and offers reasons to be optimistic about demographic change.
Humanity is facing yet another inexorable crisis. It is called global ageing, and it will kill us all. A century ago, the Great Powers were still fighting over territory, and the idea of Lebensraum was afloat in the waters of geopolitics. Today, it seems, we can measure how rapidly a nation is advancing by how fast its population is falling. If one employs the calculus of projection, it is evident that by the later decades of this century, the most technologically sophisticated and socially progressive countries will cease to exist altogether.
This is indeed world-altering news. Ever since Thomas Malthus proclaimed it so at the gates of the 19th century, society’s main foe was its own teeming numbers. Overpopulation has since been blamed for nearly every evil of modern life, from hunger to low IQ. Neo-Malthusians of the past 60 years have barely stopped to draw breath in predicting an Earth barren of every resource, stripped by billions that seek rapine like an infinite locust host, All of which argues for relief and libation--not cries and claims of crisis—for the falling fertility of homo modernicus.
In a more serious vein, global ageing and its sibling, lower fertility, do present a kind of counter-narrative to the overpopulation story. The neo-Malthusians of today declare that humanity has been too large for many decades. Paul Ehrlich, eternal champion of this view (often called the ghost of Malthus in the flesh), has estimated that the optimum number of humans is 1.5 – 2 billion. With that number, he said, “you can have big active cities and wilderness.” If instead we prefer a world where people struggle for every scrap and remain barely alive, “about 4 or 5 billion” is the needed number. Since there are over 7 billion, the world needs to shift “humanely and as rapidly as possible…to population shrinkage.”
In fact, for a good many of the world’s nations, including China, this has begun. It’s not quite as rapid as Ehrlich and his followers would like—but then, how to “humanely” eliminate nearly 6 billion people in short order? Yet it’s underway. Japan is now losing around 500,000 people year, and China 400,000, while countries in Europe will see declines of 10% - 20% by mid-century. Fertility worldwide has fallen nearly by half since the 1960s, from 4.7 births per woman to 2.4 in 2020, and it is on track to drop below replacement (2.1) by the 2050s. Birth rates in Europe went below replacement as early as the 1980s. China has discovered its own had plunged to 1.3 (population management gone out of control), the U.S. that its own is 1.7, with South Korea and Japan at 1.0 and 1.4. Meantime, India at 2.2 will sink below 2.1 in this decade. Recent modeling suggests global population could peak around 2055, with dozens of countries (China, Japan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil) losing half their numbers by 2100. Only sub-Saharan Africa will grow significantly.
While all this may not be enough for today’s Malthusian hordes, it has nonetheless generated a great deal of anxiety in quarters well beyond the hallways of demography departments. A “jaw dropping global crash” is one description; an “emptying planet” is another. Over the past decade, tumbling birth rates and global ageing have been given avid attention in mainstream news outlets, think tank reports, and book writing.
Global ageing and falling birth rates are linked. Their fundamental connection, as Hans Rosling and others have insisted, comes from the enormous successes of modern agronomy and medicine. But there is more to the picture, too. Falling fertility is attributed to women gaining more say in their lives, more access to education and birth control, and the huge drop in infant mortality. Urbanization is another factor, since it advances the availability of work for women while exacerbating the costs and complexities of having multiple children. In lower-income countries, progeny are still seen as needed labor, but having a large number is also perceived as a risk for maternal illness and mortality. There are also (lest we overlook them), the psychological effects in emerging and wealthier nations of recession, income stagnation, political and cultural conflict, worries about climate change, as well as changing ideas about motherhood itself, its limitations vs. rewards.
As for global ageing, this has mainly come from the increased availability of food, clean water, and modern medical care. The last of these has come to include a raised awareness of what “health” means—the role of smoking, improvements in diet, need for exercise, mental activity in older years (quality of life). Yet social factors have not lost their importance. Political and cultural support for advancing this greater realm of health will be essential going forward, as will increases in public safety (e.g. cars, food, guns) and reduction in forms of pollution.
In short, falling fertility and rising longevity are neither accidents nor the inevitable result of personal choice. They are the signs of the multifactor, multiform advances that reflect the beneficial side of modernization. A good deal of this represents the investment wealthier countries have made in scientific knowledge, its applications to medicine and public health, and, over time (and with delays) making this available to the rest of the world.
Why, then, are these two signs of success so often mentioned as if they were each a curse from below? Why are we told to ageing especially as something about which we need to be worried, very worried?
Much talk returns to the labor force. A metric wielded here is the Dependency Ratio, the percentage of a population that is not working and thus reliant on others. Dependency is defined as those 0-14 and 65+ in age. How accurate might this be?
For the U.S., not very. Neither does it appear particularly useful for upper-income economies in particular. One reason for this is that many more people now continue working into their late 60s and 70s. In America, nearly 20% of the working population is now over 65. Numbers for the EU average about 15% but go as high as 35% (Iceland) (see data here, ch 4).
Yet there are other reasons the Dependency Ratio is not so dependable. The biggest is the number of people 15-64 that are not in the work force. This doesn’t mean only the previously employed who are now unemployed. It also includes those who have stopped looking, those who haven’t found work for the first time, those who earn too little to support themselves or family, those who have decided to abandon work or been forced out of it since the global financial crisis of 2008-09. Numbers here are both poorly known and large. The pandemic has made them much larger. These are all people who depend on others—family, government, relief agencies, churches, and more. Economists have terms for all of these categories of under-and unemployed (summary here). But they all refer overwhelmingly to people 15-64.
Estimates for U.S. underemployment are on the order of 8% - 11%, about 30 million. When this is added to the official figure for the unemployed--5.8% in June 2021, or 19 million—the total reaches nearly 50 million. If economic dependency be the concern, we need to include many who live below the poverty line (13.7% in 2021, or 45 million). Assuming significant (say 50%) overlap between these people and the under- and unemployed, a conservative final figure for dependent 15-64 year olds comes to 72 million people, about 22% of the total population.
Within this number, people of color are greatly over-represented. Neither does the total reflect the situations for millions of undocumented immigrants. Imperfect as it is, the 72 million figure is well above the 55 million (17%) estimated for people 65 and over.
It is similar in large parts of the advanced world. Global ageing and its purported negative impacts—falling tax revenue, greater government burdens for spending on health,
welfare, pensions, disabilities—do not appear worthy of unbridled worry. Not, that is, when compared to the huge economic failures that plague so many younger people.
The fundamental idea behind fears over global ageing is that older people represent a drag on a nation’s economy and, by extension, its vitality and even stability. A half-step further takes us to the terrain of a weakened and decaying society, where a small number of younger workers labor to support a gray and languid elite.
But this now seems the stuff of twilight myth. Not only do a greater portion of older people choose to keep working, they choose to do so full-time. The labor participation rate for those 65 and over began rising in the 1980s and has continued to do so through the 2008 recession. An upper limit to the “working age” no long seems easy to define (75? 80? 90?). Perhaps it is no longer worth defining at all. The same thing might be said for such terms as “elderly” and “senior,” as these are less and less relevant to healthy, working people in their 60s and 70s.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has brought changes, such as working remotely, that will remain in place going forward. Removing the need (and hassles) for commuting, this will only encourage even more 65+ people to remain in the labor force longer. Indeed, working online from home is far less physically demanding and psychologically stressful than traveling to an office, dealing with colleagues or clients, and so forth. With further technological advances in so-called “smart” applications, including those employing artificial intelligence, more types of work will come to be automated, thus more efficiently operated and managed on a remote basis. And with a greater part of the population engaged in working (15-75, or even higher), the issue of declining fertility will itself decline in importance.
Longevity will continue to rise in countries where war and major epidemics are rare or non-existent. Further advances should be expected in many aspects of health and health care—these will be kept a core priority in an ageing society, for the benefit of all. To the degree that this happens in advanced nations with highest levels of scientific expertise, such advances will follow the historical pattern of spreading to lower-income parts of the world, though at a rate significantly higher than in the past.
Also, certain to expand are the aspects of personal health noted above: diet, physical exercise, effects of smoking, and so on. Longevity will continue to grow because people will eventually be taking better care of themselves. This, in turn, will greatly reduce the levels of chronic illness in older people and, when coupled with improvements in medical care, will help keep the burdens of health care costs and spending moderated compared with today.
None of this implies the future of ageing societies will be sweetness and light. Yet fears of the future shouldn’t be driven by such facts as that people over 65 now outnumber children under 5, that one out of every 8 persons will be this aged by 2030, or that most populous countries are already, or will soon be, shrinking. The specter of global ageing shouldn’t haunt the present with dark omens of doom that compete with the forecasts of Dr. Ehrlich.
By 2050, nearly a quarter of humanity will be 60 years and older. This may well please the neo-Malthusians in part. Older people tend to consume fewer resources, and if they treat their bodies and minds better than their parents did, won’t drag a country into heath care bankruptcy. Whether they will help heal the schisms in modern societies, swell a rising tide of wisdom, patience, life experience, and moral storytelling, is not yet apparent.
But global ageing, coupled with lower fertility, will mean big changes, without doubt. Not all such changes require high anxiety today, however. Effects will be mixed, benefits will occur. Vexed and woeful views have a tendency to stigmatize: an aged society, they imply, is one to reject and correct. At a deeper level, such a society is presumed to bear the marks of decay and gradual death. This is a misreading. Its only service is to suggest that decision-makers must keep vigilant in trying to improve the lives of their people. Everyone hopes to reach 60 and beyond; the chances today are far higher than at any time in human history or prehistory. It makes sense to understand this for what it truly signifies and what it suggests may lie ahead.
Scott L. Montgomery is an author, geoscientist, and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle. He has 25 years' experience in the energy industry, where he worked on projects in many parts of the world. His many technical publications include papers, monographs, articles, and textbooks, mainly focused on cutting edge hydrocarbon plays, technologies, related impacts and issues.