Nothing better sums up the miserabilism of the modern age than the non-stop handwringing over ageing populations. What ought to be a cause for celebration – the fact that more people are living longer lives than ever before – is always treated as a potential source of chaos, potentially even doom. Humanity’s ever-growing population of old folk is a living monument to the leaps forward we have made in medicine, nutrition and technology in recent decades. The ‘silver tsunami’, as the novelist Martin Amis referred to the explosion in the number of old people a few years ago, should be seen as a testament to the ingenuity of mankind. But it isn’t. Instead, as the responses to a new Pew Research Center study have made clear, the growth of the numbers of elderly people is seen as a problem – a very big problem.
The Pew report, published last week, reveals some stunning facts. For example, between 2010 and 2050, the global population of over-65s is forecasted to treble, from 530million to 1.5 billion. In 2050, a remarkable 16 per cent of the world’s population will be 65 or over (it is currently eight per cent, and even that is pretty high by historical standards). In 2050, many more countries will have ‘more adults aged 65 and older than they have children younger than 15’. We are heading for a ‘much older world’, says Pew.
Yet many people see this growth in the numbers of over-65s as a ‘major problem’. According to Pew, 55 per cent of Germans, 52 per cent of Spanish people, 45 per cent of the French and 43 per cent of Brits consider ‘the growing number of older people to be a major problem’. This fear of the silver tsunami is often expressed by official bodies. So a United Nations report published in 2012 wrung its hands over ‘the ageing population time bomb’. Humanity will struggle to ‘cope with the impact of a rapidly ageing population’, it said. Apparently there will be social security crises, resource depletion and possibly intergenerational conflict.
You could be forgiven for thinking we’re heading for a real-life Night of the Living Dead, with a billion-odd oldies shiftlessly coming to get us and gobble up our stuff and homes. Yet the amazingness of the silver tsunami cannot be overstated. In the early twentieth century, global average life expectancy was 31. Thirty one! These days, 31-year-olds aren’t even seen as proper adults. Now, in 2014, global life expectancy is 70. That’s a leap of nearly 40 years in a century.
In individual countries, the rise in life expectancy has been more dramatic still. In China in 1960, life expectancy was 43. In China in 2014 – a place sneered at by Western eco-worriers as dirty and dangerous – life expectancy is 74.2. In just a couple of generations, the Chinese have gone from dying in middle age to dying in old age. In Britain, 35 per cent of babies born in 2014 can expect to live to 100, which will mean the future regent – an aged offspring of Will and Kate’s? – will be kept busy signing the traditional congratulatory telegrams all British centenarians receive.