Your choice: take care of infants now or later


Maybe it’s because my birthday’s coming up. Or maybe it’s ‘Shock of Gray,’ the book I’m reading. Or maybe I can’t resist problems that can’t be solved. I’m talking about aging.

The front cover of Shock of Gray identifies its target: “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.” Well, that sounds daunting.

How daunting is it? Simply put, as the world’s population urbanizes and develops, fertility and birth rates fall. In Europe the trend is clear. Fertility rates have dropped as low as 1.3 children per couple, which is well below the replacement rate of about 2.1 children per couple.

Spaniards and Italians in particular fear their lines may be going extinct, and both countries rely heavily on immigration to keep their societies operational. Rising immigrant populations can be seen all across Europe, including Spanish-speaking South Americans, Moroccans, Africans, Middle Easterners, Pakistanis and so forth. One quote calls this a “demographic neutron bomb,” and another pictures the grand architecture of Europe inhabited by foreigners.

It’s not so much different here in Canada. We have the highest ratio of immigrants to residents of any G8 country—and we’re doing it to maintain a one percent annual population growth to keep our economy on the rails. Most of those immigrants go to central or western Canada.

When it comes to immigration, New Brunswick lags behind the rest of Canada. That’s a concern, since this province has the second lowest fertility rate in Canada at 1.5. The prospect of finding the workers we’ll need was one of the topics mentioned at the recent Future New Brunswick Summit.

But this is not a new scenario for New Brunswick. Throughout its history it has faced the prospect of out-migration—and periodic in-migration as happened in the 1970s. But the province’s population has plateaued just as it’s aging dramatically.

So what does an aging population mean, exactly? Here are a few factors:

1. Fewer workers, more retirees
2. Fewer children, fewer schools
3. Spiraling health-related costs
4. Need for small, warm housing units
5. Need for alternative transportation
6. Need for seniors’ services
7. Fewer tax revenues
8. Growing seniors’ poverty
9. A more risk-adverse culture
10. More ethnic immigrants to assimilate
11. Changing spending patterns
12. “Age-ism,” crimes against the aged.

And we’re not alone in our concerns. The effects (and causes) are global. The global economy is bringing a Western quality of life to the developing world, and as it does birth rates are falling there, too. At the same time, a massive global migration is underway, redistributing young workers across the developed world.

Once those workers and their young families arrive, they adopt our way of life, including our low fertility rates, and in so doing, join our aging populations. And, ironically, their mass exodus leaves only aging people back home. So places such as Equador and Peru now face the same aging demographic challenges that we are.

According to Shock of Gray author Ted Fishman, caregivers in Spain are symptomatic of global trends. These caregivers, often from Spanish-speaking countries, are usually females, who themselves are in their mid-50s. They take care of all the sordid tasks attached to aging such as wiping poopy bottoms and changing diapers as they take the place of urban sons and daughters who are too busy to look after their aging parents.

But for the more affluent among us, graceful aging is a self-obsession. Massive amounts of money are taken out of local economies and set aside in investments and savings to support future needs. Adopting healthy lifestyles becomes the focus, including fitness, healthy eating and vitamin therapy. Apparently, the “winner” is the one who dies the oldest—in the best physical shape.

Entire industries have sprouted up. Electronics companies connect the elderly to emergency care. Assisted living and seniors’ retirement facilities are a growth business. The pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries deeply into the demographic.

In our race to defy death we’re creating an aging civilization. Globally, there will be literally millions of people living beyond the age of 100. Over 12.5 percent of our population here in Canada (and New Brunswick) is now over the age of 65, which will increase dramatically as the century progresses.

Meanwhile, we’re running out of young people. And not just here, everywhere.

When we consider that just a hundred years ago a good life expectancy might be 65 years, this is a dramatic cultural shift. Both youth and age were valued in our past. Today those values are being stretched. Instead of taking care of newborn infants, we’re more often taking care of nonagenarian infants. And barring euthanasia, that presents some real problems.

To quote one Alfredo Bregni of the famous McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, “The future might not belong to whoever has the largest market or is the best positioned in terms of process technology or production skills. More simply, the future will belong to whoever thinks long term.”

Odd as it sounds, any long term future depends on people actually having kids.


  1. Hmmmmm.
    Much to think about on the "Road to Hana."

  2. Well, I suppose there wouldn't be many places on earth more conducive to those thoughts. Perhaps there's a metaphor in the Seven Sacred Pools (such as the seven sacred stages of life...). Aloha and bon voyage over the holidays, E.


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