As longevity grows, the world might become a better place

By Fred Pearce
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ushi Okushima is the oldest resident of Ogimi, the most elderly community in Japan, the country where the average age is higher than anywhere else in the world. At 108, she still takes to the floor for traditional Japanese dances. Afterward she dabs a little French perfume behind her ears and sips the local firewater. If an aging population is on the way, she is not a bad advertisement for what we have in store.

The Land of the Rising Sun has become the land of the setting sun with staggering speed. As recently as 1984, Japan had the youngest population in the developed world, but by 2005 it had become the world's most elderly country. Soon it will become the first country where most people are older than 50.

This is partly because Japanese people live so long: Men can expect to reach 79 and women 86. It is also partly because the Japanese have almost given up having babies: The fertility rate is just 1.2 children per woman, far lower than the 2.1 needed to maintain a steady population.

The rest of the world is following Japan's example. In 19 countries, from Singapore to Iceland, people have a life expectancy of about 80 years. Of all the people in human history who have reached the age of 65, half are alive now. Meanwhile, women around the world have half as many children as their mothers. And if Japan is the model, their daughters may have half as many as they do.

Homo sapiens is aging fast, and the implications of this may overwhelm all other factors shaping the species over the coming decades -- with more wrinkles than pimples, more walkers than training wheels, and more gray power than student power. The longevity revolution affects every country, every community and almost every household. It promises to restructure the economy, reshape the family, redefine politics and even rearrange the geopolitical order over the coming century.

The revolution has two aspects. First, we are not producing babies at the rate we used to. In just a generation, world fertility has halved, to just 2.6 babies per woman. In most of Europe and much of east Asia, fertility is closer to one child per woman than two, way below long-term replacement levels. The notion that the populations of places such as Brazil and India will go on expanding looks misplaced; in fact, they could soon be contracting. Meanwhile, except in a handful of AIDS-ravaged countries in Africa, people are living longer everywhere.

This is challenging, even for rich nations.

In Germany, France and Japan, for instance, there are fewer than two tax-paying workers to support each retired pensioner. In Italy, the figure is fewer than 1.3. Some predict that the world will face a wave of "aging recessions."

But could there be an upside? Yes. Flip the coin of aging and what do we see? In 1965, the Who sang: "Hope I die before I get old." Today, the baby boomers who clamored for the Who remain active, assertive and independent as they age. They fill library and seminar halls once crammed with youths. They walk picket lines -- or run marathons. Far from being a weight around society's neck, many of them look like a new human resource waiting to be tapped.

The idea of a retirement age was invented by Otto von Bismarck in the 1880s, when as chancellor of Germany he needed a starting age for paying war pensions. He chose the age of 65 because that was typically when ex-soldiers died. But in developed countries today, and soon in many poorer ones, women can expect nearly 30 years of retirement, and men 20 years. In the future, people will probably be expected to stay in the formal economy longer.

Some worry that an older workforce will be less innovative and adaptable, but there is evidence that companies with a decent proportion of older workers are more productive than those addicted to youth. This is sometimes called the Horndal effect, after a Swedish steel mill where productivity rose by 15 percent as the workforce got older. Age brings experience and wisdom. Think what it could mean when the Edisons and Einsteins of the future, the doctors and technicians, the artists and engineers, have 20 or 30 more years to give us.

But this is not fundamentally about economics or retirement. It is about society's zeitgeist, its social wellsprings. As the cultural historian Theodore Roszak at California State University, East Bay, once wrote, "Aging is the best thing that has happened in the modern world, a cultural and ethical shift that looks a lot like sanity."

At 50, we do not expect to act or feel as we did at 20 -- nor at 80 as we did at 50. The same is true of societies. What will it be like to live in societies that are much older than any we have known? We are going to find out, because the aging of the human race is one of the surest predictions of this century.

If the 20th century was the teenage century, the 21st will be the age of the old: It will be pioneered by the baby boomers who a generation ago took the cult of youth to new heights. Without the soaring population and so many young overachievers, the tribal elders will return. More boring maybe, but hopefully wiser.

The older we are, the less likely we are to be hooked on the latest gizmos and the more we should appreciate things that last. We may even reduce pressure on the world's resources by consuming less and by conserving our environment more. We must especially hope for that, because unless the boomers can pay reparations for youthful indiscretions with the planet's limits, we may all be doomed.

The 20th century did great things. We should be proud that for the first time most children reach adulthood and most adults grow old. But after our exertions, perhaps we need to slow down a bit. Take a breather. Learn to be older, wiser and greener. Doesn't sound so bad, does it? Here's to Ushi Okushima.

Pearce, author of "The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet's Surprising Future," is an environmental consultant to New Scientist magazine (, where this essay first appeared. He turns 59 this year.

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