The greys are coming! From generation gap to economic turf-war

Paul Raven @ 03-11-2010

Props to George Dvorsky for flagging up this Salon interview with Ted C Fishman, promoting his new book Shock Of Gray, which is all about the recent rapid increases in human longevity, and the knock-on effects of such. Perhaps we’ll finally shake off our geographical differences only to get caught up in an economic tug of war between the elderly and the young:

As baby boomers start to approach the age of 65 in large numbers, do you foresee a civil rights movement for older adults, given that generation’s history of activism?

There might be a civil rights movement, but people won’t recognize it as a civil rights movement. They’ll see it as an economic turf war. When you get the resources of a society, you get the respect. You can see this in Europe right now, where the population is somewhat older than it is here. The debt crisis has really caused a huge and quick reckoning with the crisis in pension funding and hundreds of thousands of people are coming into the street. They made promises to themselves and now they find that they can’t keep those promises. In some ways, they’re battling their past selves.

But they feel like they are fighting a younger generation.

Yeah, I think that’s right. But in the long run the battle will not be for who gets what share of the public financing. It will be a more traditional civil rights issue, which is: Evaluate me on my abilities and my skills, not on my weaknesses. The older population is a hugely diverse one. If the image of an older person is going to be exclusively that of an enabled, sharp, cognitively with-it, older person who can work into their 70s and 80s, then we’re ignoring a huge part of the population that will need our help.

Not exactly a new idea, but one that probably isn’t getting the attention it deserves; longevity is kind of sneaking up on us while we bicker about other matters.

Here’s an idea that’s new, though, or at least it is to me: longevity as an accelerator of globalisation.

You argue that when wealthy nations started to age, that actually sped up globalization.

Right. Aging economies — Japan and Europe and the United States — are shopping the world for youth. The traditional workplace is changing to drive older people out — the cost of healthcare and pensions weighs very heavily on global companies — and places such as China have a population that it could send to the cities unburdened by age and the cost of age. Globalization really is a function of demographic change. When you go into beat-up, industrial towns you can feel it. You can see that older workers who used to be on the factory are now doing minimum-wage work at big-box stores on the edge of town. And then China has factories that contain tens of thousands of workers, without a single soul that’s over 25 years old. And you think, the only important thing about these workers is their youth.

Unspoken but implicit in that statement is longevity-as-driver-of-immigration. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the widespread tensions over immigration levels aren’t just a convenient proxy for concerns about the economics of greying…

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One Response to “The greys are coming! From generation gap to economic turf-war”

  1. Wintermute says:

    Globalization really is a function of demographic change? I call bullshit. The Golden Girls and boys are a pretending-to-be employed human relations gambit, they’re highlighting receipts for minimum wage at Wal-Mart because US manufacturers figured out that instead of paying people salaries they can survive on to build quality products, they could pay Xiao Li Min down in Guang Xhou a dollar a day to work 16 hours in dark clouds of asbestos on melamine soaked polyethelene kids toys till they either take their own lives *coughfoxconncough* or die of blood poisoning, “at the age of 25”.