By Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, February 11, 2012
The world is on the threshold of what might be called “peak people.” The world’s supply of working-age people will soon be shrinking, causing a shift from surplus to scarcity. As with “peak oil” theories – which hold that declining petroleum supplies will trigger global economic instability – the claims of the doomsayers are too hyperbolic and hysterical. These are not existential threats but rather policy challenges. That said, they’re very big policy challenges.
Canada’s crisis is mild compared to most countries, but it’s still serious. There are currently almost five working-age Canadians whose income taxes pay the pension and health-care costs of each retiree; within 20 years, there will be only three. As a result, according to Ottawa, health-care costs will double and social-service costs will rise by a third. Compared to, say, Japan, where pensioners will become a majority this century, that’s nothing.
But population aging will affect us in far more profound ways, because it is global.
About 11 per cent of the world’s people are over 60 at the moment. In the next 25 years that will double, to almost a fifth, and one in six of those people will be over 80, according to a forthcoming book, Global Aging in the 21st Century, by sociologists Susan McDaniel of the University of Lethbridge and Zachary Zimmer of the University of California.
While this is affecting every country and region – even sub-Saharan Africa is now seeing a very fast rise in its proportion of seniors – some countries are being hit very hard. While 12 per cent of Chinese are now over 60, in two decades, there will be more than 28 per cent. Brazil faces a similar blow. It will be very difficult for countries that are only just emerging from poverty to suddenly face huge elder-care costs.
Peak people will be an age when jobs compete for workers rather than vice versa. The cheapest labour will vanish. We’re already seeing this: Because China is aging very fast, its dwindling working-age population is turning down the lowest-paid jobs and pushing up the minimum wage sharply, as well as the once-minimal costs of social services: Stuff from China will stop being cheap, because the Chinese aren’t young.
This can have larger consequences than we imagine. For example, the United States appeared to be escaping the worst of the aging trend because it has an unusually high fertility rate (averaging almost 2.1 children per family, half a child more than Canada and Europe). Most analysts assumed that this was the result of American religion or prosperity. But an important new study by economists Moshe Hazan and Hosny Zoabi has found that the real reason for larger families is the unusually large supply of low-cost babysitters and child-care workers in the U.S. – mainly due to immigration, much of it “illegal,” from Latin America. But those Central American countries and Mexico are themselves aging fast, which will soon choke off that cheap labour supply and drive up the cost of having extra kids – which will cause the U.S. to become less fertile and more elderly.
Peak people will also be an age when countries will be competing for immigrants rather than trying to limit them. Immigration has spared Canada from the worst of aging, but immigrants adopt host-country family sizes very quickly, so they’re a temporary fix. And if their home countries are competing to keep them, then we'll have a harder time finding young people who want to come. It will require nimble and clever policies to prevent us from becoming old and lonely.
With "Peak People," just perhaps, only in a pinch, the world might possibly see a shift away from ageism, the discrimination against those of us who, while shedding all or combing white hair, can still think, reason, respond and even detect many of the causes of gordion knots, so apparently undiagnoseable to the current experts responsible for their untangling. If workers' numbers are going to become increasingly smaller, putting inevitably strains on social programs, and worker shortage is going to be a policy problem for many countries, then using the good healthy years of those very seniors might be one way to alleviate the economic and social tension.
Sitting around a pool in Sarasota, sipping martinis, while waiting for a glutonous, fat-filled, calorie-laiden dinner may look attractive from the outside; believe me, it will not enhance either personal health or family relationships, without the added salsa of the opportunity to exercise both body and mind. And that exercise could come with some limited remuneration, in additional to the respect it would engender among the mid-range of the demographics, whose current attitudes to seniors is more like "get-outta-my-road" you old fogie!
Sharing work has been a very slow-developing and even more slowly accepted approach to engaging people. A couple of decades ago, in a staff-room in Northern Ontario, as we all were reaching two-plus decades of classroom dust in our veins and arteries, and the school system was stagnating with "older" pedagogues, I blurted out, unwisely I quickly learned, "Why, I would be more than willing to teach one fewer class each day, and if five of us did the same, that would create another teaching position for a recent graduate!" (At that time, six classes per day, each of approximately 45 minutes constituted a teacher's timetable.)
The howl of protest against such a ludicrous notion is still echoing off those staff-room walls. Protests against loss of income (by 20%) and loss of pension (again by 20%) redounded and there was no hint of the benefits to such a program, in reduced stress, more family time, more time for study if the individual made that choice, more variety and energy and imagination across the school culture with the addition of the new recruits. It was the change that was unacceptable and would be vehemently resisted.
It is easier to bring in immigrants from other countries than it is to shift our attitudes toward the elderly. We have warehouses for the elderly, especially for those whose families have moved to other parts of the world, and who require more care than they can provide for themselves. However, the elderly, as we are finding out, are NOT DEAD YET!
And our potential contribution is barely even whispered in polite circles. Those who are in their forties have, for the most part, not adjusted to the reality of 80 as the new 60, 70 as the new 50 etc. They still believe, and appear to like it that way, that those of us in the "retired" demographic have been used up and have little or nothing to offer, by way of useful and gainful employment. It is ridiculous and the sooner the attitude changes, the better, not only to relieve some of the labour shortages that are projected, but also to relieve some of the health care costs associated with the loss of work.
We do not have to work 50, or more hours each week to make a respectable, and respectful contribution to an organization; however, we do have insight, experience, skills that are apparently in somewhat short supply (let's talk communication skills, or analytical skills, or diagnostic skills in organizations, for a few examples) and most of us are healthy enough to be able to offer regular, dependable and even innovative contributions to organizations willing to colour outside the proverbial lines.
And when the time comes for us to really need some support to look after us, then we would appreciate that help, but let's not rush that time.
The elderly's acceptance into the workforce will not solve the worker shortage; it will only reduce the "peak" a little; but it is clearly worth considering, just as that "wild" blurting back in that staff-room was some two decades ago. Some of us might even have lasted longer in the classroom had we had only those 5 classes, instead of the conventional 6.
Change, rather than an enemy, can be a friend! Imagine that!