Dangerous Demographics

25 August 2016

In many countries around the world, people are living longer. At the same time birth rates are declining—sometimes rapidly. The result? More old people, fewer young people. Japan, for example, has one of the world’s lowest birth rates. Combine that with the world’s highest average life expectancy, and the result is a population that's rapidly shrinking and rapidly aging. Now that’s dangerous demographics. 

If Japan were more open to immigration, like Germany, they wouldn’t have the same problem. Germany’s population is aging but shrinking much more slowly, thanks to immigration. Here in the U.S. we have a low birth rate combined with increasing longevity. But thanks to a huge influx of immigrants, our population is actually expanding pretty rapidly. Of course, it’s also becoming more ethnically stratified in the process—with the young being much more ethnically diverse than the old. Some people find that a dangerous demographic.

But that’s just irrational fears about ethnic diversity talking—and frankly, fears about the aging of America are driven by myths and prejudices about old people. People act is if the old are a burden, who take more than they give, and are mostly sick and soaking up expensive care that the young have to pay for. But that’s just ageist nonsense. People aren’t just living longer, they’re staying healthy and productive longer too—“seventy is the new fifty,” as they say. That’s not dangerous; it’s beneficial. Productive, healthy old people commit fewer crimes, don’t crowd our prisons, spend time with their grandchildren.

Then again, maybe these worries aren’t necessarily just ageistm. Think about Social Security, or Medicare, or even the Affordable Care Act. Each rests on an inter-generational compact. People have to be willing to pay into the system, beginning when they're young, continuing through their work years, then drawing the greatest benefits only when they're older and retired. Of course, those inter-generational compacts are also darned good things, not just for the old, but for the young too. For the old, they provide a measure of retirement security and access to decent medical care. And for the young, they provide the reasonable expectation of such things in the future. It seems impossible to have a stable society without having inter-generational compacts in place.

But think of those people who disagree, who dismiss Social Security as a Ponzi scheme where the old rip off the young. You don’t have to be a right wing ideologue to appreciate the need to balance benefits for the old against burdens on the young. It’s obviously a lot more challenging to balance the system when too many older people are drawing benefits out and too few younger people are paying in.

But politics aside, what exactly is the philosophical issue here? Well, it’s about justice—inter-generational justice. If it were just about politics, the old would have no worries. They’ve got the money, the power, and the votes. The philosophical questions is about what the old owe to the young and what the young owe the old in return. And how should that calculation change as the ratio of old to young changes so radically.

Or think about it this way. People are living longer, the shape of life is changing—philosophy should help us understand this change. It used to be retire early, ten or fifteen years of leisure and then... go gently into that good night. But that model doesn’t make much sense when people can be healthy and productive into their 80s and 90s. So does that mean work yourself to the bone until you’re 75 or 80? Or do we need different models of the whole life course? Tune in and find out!

Comments (9)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, August 26, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Live long..., and perspire?

Live long..., and perspire? Isn't the alternative much, much worse? An increasing population that ultimately uses up all the earth's resources? Besides, the 'problem' is not nearly as great as fear-mongers (or the 'small government' crowd) portray it. Where the generations all live together there are benefits for the young in the healthy elderly. So it is the isolation we practice that creates the difficulties. Elderly care is only an extreme burden because too many are infirm with preventable conditions. With proper diet and exercise diabetes is all but unheard of. This is not an individual choice, no more than our not-so-splendid isolation. If economics brought jobs to where the people are, instead of shuffling us around like pieces on a board game, communities would be stable and housing more affordable (not because cheaper but because changing hands less often). Some infirmities, notably Alzheimer's, can't yet be prevented, but the plain fact is that we are awash in money that is not contributing to the economy, let alone the public needs. It is exasperating how so much money can accumulate into the hands of those who so clearly don't derive any respectable benefit from it without anyone ever asking where it comes from. As if there were no relation between the poor getting poorer and the rich richer. Economics is systemic. Taking facets of it in isolation misses the whole point, and it is hard to know how this is not a deliberate prevarication.  

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Saturday, August 27, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I agree with Mr Washburn's

I agree with Mr Washburn's comment super, and will add that most survival-dependent work will soon be automatable, and the rest of it soon after that, subsuming this problem into the larger one of people's coping with not having jobs. (Some,  especially men in this culture, seem to derive most of their feelings of worth and status from performing labour, the nastier and harder the better. Worse yet,  some derive from this a feeling that they are entitled  to rule their households like small kingdoms, and resentment when they cannot.) 
Caring for the elderly will be harder to automate-away, and some elderly who,  unlike myself,  prefer society to independence from other human beings, will prefer human care even when that were unnecessary?. 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, August 28, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I appreciate being supplied

I appreciate being supplied the point I had omitted, though I would just add that automation doesn't just threaten availability of jobs, but undermines the very idea of the value of work, and brings out the conundrum of how will an economy be able to exist at all if there is no upward pressure on wages? Systemic collapse. When all is said and done, economics is a dramatic tension between the value of work and an interest in denying or undervaluing just compensation for it. Is a healthy elderly population just another pretext to coerce people into working for less than deserved? I could sputter on endlessly about the malicious mendacity of economic formulations, but for now I'll stick to one last point. Being of the age in question, I can report that expectations of endless labor throughout the aging process is a cruelty that is not yet even begun to be told. The magnification of minor aches and pains that might be trivial in each case is cumulatively indefensible, and this even if overall health is excellent, as in my case. But even beyond that, there is a growing sense of "quo usque tandem?", how long will this go on?!!! With a diminishing future, it is extremely hard to fix one's mind and one's enthusiasm on the workaday world. It is just too much to ask the elderly for the kind of effort and attentiveness, even fascination, routinely expected of the young. Around noon, I don't want lunch, I just want a nap!
In any case, if philosophy has any role in practical public affairs it is to do all it can to prevent people, in public, from holding opinions, especially dangerous opinions, without having any real evidence or rational justification for them. Important facts were gotten wrong in this subject presentation, and that is, as a philosopher, disappointing. I hope it isn't telling. (Immigration is currently flat-lined at zero net. It is the Europeans that are being flooded with immigrants, and, aside from the threat of terrorism, most countries there still recognize the benefits of it.)

Dean S.'s picture

Dean S.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

As a 60s guy now receiving

As a 60s guy now receiving Social Security & Medicare, I hope that something can be worked-out for post-baby-boomer generations.
My intent is that the following is an accurate description of these programs:
The employee & employer pay into them. On corporate & even progress media, the most common term is people are "given" these programs. The pie chart makes them look like welfare programs because of their 40% or whatever of "government spending." Have never heard anyone explain that unlike military spending, which comes from a broad-base of taxpayers, this money is just being paid back to the original payers, minus a chunk that each administration uses as a quick fix for other programs and debts.
The people receiving Social Security create jobs, stabilize the economy, and often spend most of the money locally.
Since before 1935 and 1965, the descriptions in opposition to a fair deal for the non-rich have included:
"ruinous to freedom like slavery and dictatorship," and "they prevent any possibility of the employer providing work for the people." (Sounds like the current minimum wage opposition argument.) Barry Goldwater likened these programs to "free vacations, beer and cigarettes."
Sounds like hyperbole, but people were dying in the streets before these programs went into effect, but that's no big deal to some.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The hell with that Dark Night

The hell with that Dark Night. I was compelled to waste my most productive years chasing pay checks and working in a politicized government agency, where intelligence was rewarded with condescending conceit and any level of creativity was either frowned upon or treated as an affront to the ubiquitous chain-of-command. Now that I do not have to chase wages and defend every original thought, things are far more interesting, age and infirmity not withstanding. I would love to live 100 years. Unfortunately, genetics are not on my side. Nor are the newly prevailing attitudes towards quote-unquote seniors, who, left to their own devices along with advances in medical science, will likely have longer and longer average life spans, ultimately wrecking economies worldwide. Not to worry though. Those aforementioned prevailing attitudes will morph into policies and actions aimed at mediating and eliminating the senior threat. This will happen slowly, at first, but, as with other aspects of social engineering, it will finally achieve the desired end(s). And no one will bat an eye. Darwin, had he lived another twenty to thirty years, would have likely predicted this. If age had not by then robbed him of his ability to think.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Desired by whom??????

Desired by whom??????

MJA's picture


Friday, September 2, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I was traveling with family

I was traveling with family through the northern Arizona Indian reservations on our way to Monument Valley some years ago, through desert with no water that our government had deemed fit for the Hopi and Navajo. In the middle of nowhere we came across an old horse of only skin and bones, head down walking as slow as slow through the heat and the Sun down the unfenced road. There was discussion about how sad it seemed and how it would be most humane to end the horses life, to put the horse out of its misery. I saw it different though, I saw the horse as the epitome of strength. That a life could endure the hardships of age and environment, of past, of life, alone in the end, self reliantly, one small step after another, down that desolate road, to me was how life is meant to be. Strong, beautiful, and free.
There is no limitations to life unless we make it so. And for those who are fortunate to live to a ripe old age, let them or us be an example of not weakness, but rather of power, beauty and strength. =      

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, September 3, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Public revenues are labile.

Public revenues are labile. And the changes are not the purview of the individual  tax-payer. Public revenues belong to all of us. And beneficiaries no less than those who would otherwise benefit from impoverishing them. America has always, from the very inception, relegated wage earning to a diminished voice in public affairs. If you read Adam Smith carefully (but why should you? few others do!) you might recognize that the investor can only lose his investment, whereas the wage earner can lose "subsistence", and the investor can profit virtually without limit, while the wage earner can gain nothing more than "subsistence". See the unfairness in this? If you don't you are being deliberately obtuse! So long as wage earners cannot exceed "subsistence" the possibility of a comfortable retirement will be hopelessly out of reach. It was one thing to have an economic system rely on this distinction between poor and rich when even the poor lived in settled communities where homeless was almost impossible, but in a time where homeless any of us who cannot sustain an income it is a savage cruelty to suppose income a purely private issue. Even those these days who had thought they had made ample preparation for retirement are losing the means to subsist at the hands, not only of tax-cutters, but of corporate pension promises. the game is rigged against the wage earner, especially at the lowest end of the spectrum. And either government steps in to rectify the savagery of the "free market" (just a euphemism for latter-day feudalism!), or serfdom results, with a massive helping-hand from racism. The way to balance the books on the social safety-net is, while expanding and solidifying the terms of that system, to make sure that every American enjoys a middle-class income at a minimum. The Rawlsian "maximin" is the recipe for the healthiest economy over-all, though the wealthiest will have to "sacrifice" their preeminent status over public policy and taxation. The fact is, the money available is ample for the need, it just isn't being collected or put to use to benefit anyone at all. Wealth beyond a certain level is a drain on the economy, not an asset to it. If it takes low wages to keep the poor with their nose to the grindstone, why pay the rich any more than the least that will keep theirs there too?

QuinnKramer's picture


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