Three cheers for the silver tsunami!

The ageing population is a boon, not a bomb.

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.

Around the world, people are staying alive for longer, and many of them are staying healthier for longer: a recent study of Americans found that disability rates in people over 65 fell from 26.2 per cent in 1982 to 19.7 per cent in 1999. Yes, the risk of cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease increases with age, but even these illnesses now occur later in life - on average 10 years later than they did in the 1950s.

If anything deserves three cheers, it is the fact that huge numbers of human beings no longer work and then die, but rather work and then live. Through his inventiveness, mankind has transformed old age from a time of sickness and uncertainty into a period of relaxation, travel, or continued work if you like: more and more over-70s are choosing to stay in the workforce rather than retire and risk getting bored. In essence, we have created a whole new dimension to the human existence, one which earlier generations could only have dreamt of: post-work life, a 20- or even 30-year period of doing what you like. Oliver Sacks captured this whole new era of human life in a moving piece in the New York Times last year to mark his eightieth birthday: ‘I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time… but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.’

Why are we so down on this new era of freedom enjoyed by ever greater numbers of people? The responses to the Pew report are only the latest instances of public fretting over the silver tsunami. The UN has previously talked about the ‘megatrend’ of ageing, informing (or perhaps warning) us that the number of international oldies will ‘swell’ in the next 10 years. Such top-down fearmongering over the ‘ageing problem’ has unleashed some pretty rotten anti-pensioner prejudice in recent years. It is now positively fashionable to be a granny-basher (metaphorically speaking, of course) and to lament loudly old people’s use of so many resources.

So baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – are now widely seen as the destroyers of future generations’ fortunes, as captured in newspaper headlines that ask: ‘Are selfish baby boomers making life difficult for younger generations by hanging on to wealth, jobs and property?’ The answer to that question is always ‘yes’. One radical British hack says wrinkly boomers have ‘screwed over’ the young by spending the past 50 years destroying the planet and having a fine time without giving a second thought for what might be left for their offspring.

This embarrassingly teenage whining about greedy oldies cuts to the heart of what lies behind our fear of the ‘ageing time bomb’: a toxic mix of Malthusian politics and generational self-pity among today’s young and middle-aged. Because they are in the vice-like grip of a warped Malthusian outlook, which views resources as strictly limited and thus sees progress as unattainable, officials and observers are convinced that if an old person has some stuff, then that means someone else will have to go without. And convinced that their lives are harder than any generation’s in history (when they patently aren’t), Generation X-ers and Y-ers shamelessly depict themselves as the put-upon victims of a world destroyed by ‘the most cosseted, untouchable, powerful generation in history’, as one columnist refers to over-65s.

In short, it’s a lack of social imagination, a dearth of ideas or feeling for creating new wealth, combined with a new divisive generational politics of envy that leads to so much handwringing over the burgeoning population of non-working but resource-consuming old people. We have a weird situation today where humanity has the technological resources to improve and extend human life yet lacks the moral resources to celebrate this as a wonderful thing. So we defy nature and disease and help people to live longer, and then say, ‘Oh no, people are living longer’. We need to find a moral language with which we can loudly and proudly celebrate our technological and medical achievements. So, get a grip, granny-bashers – if we put our minds to it we can easily come up with some neat, generous solutions for providing comfort and wealth to the growing numbers of old folk, and allow them to enjoy the leisure and freedom, the ‘binding together of the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime’, of this exciting new period in the human lifespan.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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