Ted Fishman’s Sunday NY Times Magazine piece, “As Populations Age, A Chance For Younger Nations” is not as dismal or depressing as the title of his book, Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How It Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival and Nation Against Nation. While Fishman presents the facts – we’re living longer and the percentage of people over 60 (more) and under 60 (less in some countries) is transforming our ability to meet the demands of social, health and welfare entitlements – he is remarkably short on solutions. Nor is his avoidance of certain facts very helpful. For example, he spends considerable time on China, yet, not a word that the principal cause of China’s impending aging populations predicament – not enough in the traditional working age to support the traditional elderly not working -- is their very low fertility rates as a consequence of their “one child” policy.
We also have no clues from Fishman about how to cope with the fiscal burdens of last century’s social welfare structure – for example, the Medicare and Social Security programs in America, the National Health Service in the UK, or the public pension system in France -- all possible during an era of different demographic realities but unfit for today’s. Worse, his lack of imagination is evident in telling us how impossible it will be to add older workers to the workforce, leaving the impression that we are doomed.
Yet Fishman does add to the chorus of intellectual and policy voices increasingly bringing the phenomeon of aging populations the attention it demands. While the data is not new, the growing concentration on the need for solutions is gaining momentum as reaffirmed just last week by the 2010 Standard &Poor’s report, “Global Aging 2010: An Irreversible Truth” . The S&P Report boldly declared, “No other force is likely to shape the future of national and economic health, public finances, and policymaking as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging…S&P Ratings believes that the cost of caring for these people will profoundly affect the growth prospects and domestic public debates worldwide”. They’re right. Which is why sustainable solutions can no longer rely on the public welfare “caring model” . Instead. solutions must move to incentives that facilitate marketplace innovations applied equally to “caring” as to people working longer into what longevity is redefining as the new middle age.