People, it seems, are getting a bit older. Not very exciting, eh? Well, it’s raising alarms. In fact, 56 nations now have policies to raise fertility, four times as many as 40 years ago (see “More Countries Want More Babies” on page 20).
Hand-wringers in Japan and Germany, for example, point to fewer workers per retiree (a measure called the “old age dependency ratio”). But they ignore the all-important ratio between workers and youth. A smaller proportion of youth dependents can largely or even entirely offset the rise among those who may age out of the workforce. In 1960, Japan had a total (young and old) of 56 dependents for every 100 working-age people. By 2010, it was virtually unchanged at 57 dependents. In Germany, it went up slightly, from 48 to 52. These are small shifts of no great consequence. Note also that the U.S. dependency ratio improved greatly during this same period, from 67 to 50.
Aging doesn’t necessarily equal dependency. The fact is that most older people are in pretty good shape. A sore knee here, modest hearing loss there. Many would prefer to keep working in some capacity. We need to banish the “rectangularization” of age groups, which assumes that 65+ is some sort of mandatory “no work” zone.
Smart employers should follow the example set by Germany’s BMW. Modest changes, such as wooden floors and magnifying glasses, brought productivity of older workers up to the same level as their younger counterparts. And older workers have lower absenteeism and lower turnover. Also, as the head of Germany’s Bundesbank remarked, “The young can run faster, but the old know the shortcuts.”
Germany now has 1.4 children per family. Thus, it is already near the bottom of the fertility ladder. Lower fertility and stable, even declining, population does entail some once-and-done adjustments. Fewer elementary schools and more life-care communities. Fewer pediatricians and more gerontologists. These are not wrenching societal shifts.
You’d think a world beset with climate change, civil unrest, and species extinction—all linked to increasing human population—wouldn’t need to invent imaginary problems. With yet another billion people added to the planet every dozen years, population growth still ranks at the top of planetary concerns. Let’s cross going gray off that worry list.
My friend Searle Whitney (1944–2015) cared so deeply about our natural world that he created the Institute for Population Studies in his beloved Berkeley (California). Its mission: “[T]o remove the obstacles that keep population from being seriously and rationally discussed in public discourse, and empower people to determine, reach, and maintain the best population size for their families, regions, and the planet.” This reflects our own mission as well.
Searle was a generous, unflagging supporter of Population Connection. His good humor echoed Indra Devi’s insight that “Laughter drives shouting away.” Both gentleman and gentle man, Searle found the strength to respond to a churlish world with grace and conviction. We miss him.