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Old People Rule?

The world gets grayer.

12:18 PM, Oct 21, 2010 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Phillip Longman--who ranks just beneath Batman in my pantheon of heroes--has a great piece at Foreign Policy about the demography of aging societies. Longman's point is that the world is getting a lot older: "[T]he global population of children under 5 is expected to fall by 49 million as of midcentury, while the number of people over 60 will grow by 1.2 billion." And that this global graying is likely to cause lots of problems. Among Longman's interesting take-aways:

Old People Rule?

* "The very last Japanese baby will be born in the year 2959, assuming the country's low fertility rate of 1.25 children per woman continues unchanged."

* "As recently as the late 1970s, the average Iranian woman had nearly seven children. Today, for reasons not well understood, she has just 1.74, far below the average 2.1 children needed to sustain a population over time. Accordingly, between 2010 and 2050, the share of Iran's population 60 and older is expected to increase from 7.1 to 28.1 percent. This is well above the share of 60-plus people found in Western Europe today and about the same percentage that is expected for most Northern European countries in 2050.

* "Those who predict a coming Asian Century have not come to terms with the region's approaching era of hyper-aging. Japan, whose "lost decade" began just as its labor force started to shrink in the late 1980s, now appears to be not an exception, but a vanguard of Asian demographics."

But the most interesting aspect of Longman's essay is the question of whether or not an older society (like ours) might muddle through by raising the retirement age and having people work longer. (A commonly offered antidote for entitlement scheme problems.)

Longman thinks this is a debatable proposition:

According to a recent Rand Corp. study published in Health Affairs, more than 40 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 already have difficulties performing ordinary activities of daily life, such as walking a quarter mile or climbing 10 steps without resting -- a substantial rise from just 10 years ago. Because of this declining physical fitness among the middle-aged, we can expect the next generation of senior citizens to be much more impaired than the current one. . . .

These trends undermine the argument, now common around the world, that standard retirement ages must go up. Not only are improvements in life expectancy at older ages very modest and now trending toward zero, but disability rates are exploding to the point that it would be difficult for many older workers to perform in the workplace even if they had the job skills that a modern economy demands. This explains such paradoxes as the fact that U.S. employers report it is nearly impossible to find the engineering talent they need, while the unemployment rate among U.S. engineers remains extraordinarily high. The faster-evolving and more technologically sophisticated a society becomes, the more rapidly job skills -- and elderly workers, sadly -- become obsolete.

If you haven't read it, Longman's book on demographics The Empty Cradle, is one of the best treatments of the subject you'll find.

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