October 12, 2010

The population bomb of old people

In Foreign Policy, Phillip Longman makes you Think Again about Global Aging.

Yes, the world faces a "population bomb" -- of old people.  The phenomenon is not limited to rich countries and the outlook is even worse for Asia.  Soon a Chinese child - only one because of its stringent one-child policy - will be responsible for supporting two parents and four grandparents. 

To have enough workers, old people will have to work longer, but they can only do that if they stay healthy.

In other words, a planet that grays indefinitely is clearly asking for trouble. But birth rates don't have to plummet forever. One path forward might be characterized as the Swedish road: It involves massive state intervention designed to smooth the tensions between work and family life to enable women to have more children without steep financial setbacks. But so far, countries that have followed this approach have achieved only very modest success. At the other extreme is what might be called the Taliban road: This would mean a return to "traditional values," in which women have few economic and social options beyond the role of motherhood. This mindset may well maintain high birth rates, but with consequences that today are unacceptable to all but the most rigid fundamentalists.

So is there a third way? Yes, though we aren't quite sure how to get there. The trick will be restoring what, in the days of family-owned farms and small businesses, was once true: that babies are an asset rather than a burden. Imagine a society in which parents get to keep more of the human capital they form by investing in their children. Imagine a society in which the family is no longer just a consumer unit, but a productive enterprise. The society that figures out how to restore the economic foundation of the family will own the future. The alternative is poor and gray indeed.
Posted by Jill Fallon at October 12, 2010 2:07 PM | Permalink