Over the Hill

Old Age Wasted On the Old

May 12, 2011

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Old Age Wasted On the Old

A toast, ladies and gentlemen, to Mr. Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay of Nepal, who shuffled off this mortal coil on Monday afternoon at age 82. Mr. Upadhyay was at 18,700 feet above sea level when he turned in his lunch pail, most of the way up Mount Everest. He was trying for the summit in hopes of being the oldest person ever to conquer the mountain. That glory was not vouchsafed to him. It remains the property of a different Nepalese geezer, Min Bahadur Sherchan, who reached the summit three years ago at age 76.

This news story happened to come under my eye just as I had finished Fred Pearce’s 2010 book The Coming Population Crash, now out in paperback. Pearce’s subject is demography, a big conversation topic nowadays. The developed world, as we all know, is failing to reproduce itself, sometimes sensationally so.

A hypothetical Japanese woman whose fertility, at every age x of her reproductive life, was precisely the average for today’s x-year-old Japanese females, would have only 1.21 hypothetical children. That is Japan’s Total Fertility rate (TFR). Since men do not have babies, the entire burden of replacing humanity’s current stock falls on women, who must therefore produce two adults apiece. Allowing a margin for babies born who do not become breeding adults, we need a TFR of at least 2.1 for a stable population. At 1.21 the Japanese are falling down badly on the job, though not as badly as the Taiwanese (1.15), Singaporeans (1.11), Hong Kongers (1.07), and Macanese (0.92).

“One life is quite enough for me, and its last stretch, if granted, ought to be quiet and undemanding.”

The consequences are obvious and well-known: Japan is aging. Plenty of other nations are close behind: Poland at 1.30, Italy at 1.39, and so on. China’s TFR is listed in the CIA World Factbook as 1.54, but analysts crunching the just-released numbers from last November’s census think 1.4 is more likely.

Fred Pearce puts a happy face on the whole business. Europeans breeding below replacement level? No prob—just bring in more North Africans!

There are today about three million Moroccans, 1.2 million Algerians, and 700,000 Tunisians living in Europe, along with numerous other groups. Most have jobs. Europe needs them. Ever more of them. So they come, only to be treated as invaders.

Invaders? Good grief! Why on Earth would Europeans not welcome them? Hard to figure.

Pearce is just as blithe about the aging problem. This last section of his book is titled “Older, Wiser, Greener.” Geezers are a resource, he wants us to know. They have all that accumulated wisdom about life. They’re less consumerist and more appreciative of the little things in life—greener.

(Around this point in Pearce’s book, an apothegm attributed to Benjamin Franklin about older women came to mind: “They don’t yell, they don’t tell, they don’t swell, and they’re grateful as hell.” Yes, shame on me.)

So put ‘em to work!

British journalist Katherine Whitehorn, herself eighty but still pounding away at the laptop, puts it this way: “The days when you were at work by your early 20s at latest, rose to some sort of seniority by 45, and retired at 60 or so are obviously over….The old are going to have to work longer….”

All very well for Ms. Whitehorn, who only has to knock out a few hundred words of fugitive journalism a week. What about people in more demanding lines of work? (I’d better concede that there are more demanding lines of work.) Eighty-year-old air traffic controllers? Come on.


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