On this crowded, hot, trampled planet, one of the most vexing trends is something countless numbers of us see when we look in the mirror: We’re going gray.
The aging of the human race has been faster than anyone could have imagined a few decades ago. Fertility rates have plunged globally; simultaneously, life spans have increased. The result is a re-contoured age graph: The pyramid, once with a tiny number of old folks at the peak and a broad foundation of children, is inverting. In wealthy countries, the graph already has a pronounced middle-age spread.
This is, in many respects, very good news. Longer life is a blessing of modern medicine and improvements in nutrition. Lower fertility rates have corresponded to more educational opportunities for women and greater prosperity for societies in general.
But the unexpectedly abrupt demographic transition has created economic upheaval. For the countries that hit the fertility brakes the hardest, the graying of society has become a full-blown crisis. They’re suddenly desperate for babies. They need more workers to provide goods and services to huge numbers of pensioners.
The fertility rate in Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece and many other nations is less than 1.5 children per woman, dramatically lower than the “replacement” rate of 2.1 children (the extra 0.1 accounts for children who do not survive to adulthood). Japan (fertility rate 1.4) is already the oldest country in the history of the world; South Korea (1.2) is not far behind. China (1.5) is racing to get rich before it becomes old.
In far better shape demographically is the United States, with a fertility rate just slightly below replacement level. Immigration boosts the workforce. But the
baby-boom generation is storming the higher age brackets; the number of Americans 60 to 64 jumped from 11 million to 17 million in the most recent census. When Social Security was established in 1935, life expectancy in the United States was just under 62 years at birth. Today, it is 78 and rising.
The precipitous drop in fertility in many nations caught demographers by surprise, said Linda Waite, director of the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago. No one realized until relatively recently that fertility rates would keep dropping even when women began having fewer than two children, she said.
“It’s sort of a head slap,” Waite said. “It wasn’t even talked about. It was more an unspoken assumption that fertility would fall to replacement and then stabilize.”
“There are many countries, more all the time, that are going to be looking at a population implosion, rather than a population explosion,” said Matthew Connelly, a Columbia University professor of history and the author of “Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population.”
The aging of the world will change cultures in myriad ways. People may have to extend their working lives far beyond the traditional retirement age. Countries may start competing for immigrants. Across the planet, vast numbers of people already are migrating from high-fertility countries to those that need workers.