Our Aging World Is In For A 'Shock Of Gray'
LIANE HANSEN, host:
By the year 2030, one billion people on the planet will be over the age of 65. And, for the first time in history, the number of those who are older than 50 will be greater than those under 17.
Ted Fishman has traveled around the world to find out the effects this aging trend will have on families and communities, nations and economies. His new book is called "Shock of Gray," and he's in the studio of member station WBEZ in Chicago
Welcome to the program.
Mr. TED FISHMAN (Author, "Shock of Gray"): Glad to join you.
HANSEN: Your subtitle is a little grim: "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."
Is this as apocalyptic as it sounds?
Mr. FISHMAN: Well, the title is a snapshot of the present because we haven't thought through, at the top of our intelligence, how to deal with the shock of gray. So that means that there are default solutions, and many of those are coming in the form of what businesses do around an aging population. Often reconfiguring the economics of old age, and those effects are sobering.
HANSEN: What do you mean reconfiguring?
Mr. FISHMAN: Well, you know, we are used to, in the United States and Europe, an old age which is defined by leisure, by retirement. But we are incapable of keeping our promises to ourselves, either the fortunes of the market have reversed, governments are incapable of stepping up to keep the promises because we just don't have enough money. And so this puts the demand on older people to work longer.
HANSEN: Is this aging trend spread out across the globe or is it confined to developed countries?
Mr. FISHMAN: It's spread out across the globe. We're just doing it at a different pace. We're comfortably behind Europe and much of East Asia, but the developing world is coming along rapidly.
Liane, there are several ways to measure how a country ages. One is, are people living longer. Another is, what is the percentage of people who are older in the population. And if you look at any of those measures, everywhere in the world is getting older. But the biggest numbers are the shifts in the percentage, the proportion of older people that are part of the population and these are quite dramatic.
HANSEN: You went to Tokyo, Japan, which has more old people than any other city in the world, and you write that Japan leads the way for other countries because its population is both aging and shrinking. How does that affect society and the relationship between young and old?
Mr. FISHMAN: Oh, it's quite dramatic. You know, Tokyo's an interesting place because it is so huge. And when you go there, you could see a whole street, throngs of people, all in their 70s and above, or most in their 70s and above, and the service and retail economy that's built around them and housing that's built around them. And what this is, is a snapshot of where most of Japan will be heading because it will be a country where 30 percent of the population, before long, will be over 65.
You know, I talked before about the reconfiguration of the economic lives of older people. Well, you could see it in Japan, too. So, the group that is shopping there, surprisingly, is also a group that's very heavily employed in Japan. Japan has the highest participation of its older workers in the workforce of any country in the world, any developed country in the world.
And what happens is, is that they retire, they don't have enough money to live in expensive Tokyo very frequently and they need to work. So, the day they retire, they're given a gold watch. Two days later, their employer calls them and says how would you like to come back for half of your pay? We'll give you everything you've had before, except we're just paying you half and we're not paying your benefits because your pension and the government will cover your benefits.
So, you have this vast army of contingent workers, contract workers, who act just like regular full-time factory workers in Japan, for example, they've already been tested as workers, employers like them, they regard them as family. And a young worker trying to get into the workforce competing with those older workers has a very, very hard time.
HANSEN: Developed countries like the United States made major technological advances that prolong life, so the population ages. But there's a downside economically. For example, many state budgets are hobbled by the high cost of pension fund payouts. Are you describing a win-lose situation here?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FISHMAN: Well, we certainly win, right? There's nothing better for people than longer life and healthier life. That's what mankind's wanted forever. And if you want any definition of progress, that's a pretty good one. The question is, like all progress, how do we deal with the ramifications of it?
So, we will have to make choices on where the resources go. If people were postponing some of these decisions to exit the workforce or if they were made more valuable in the workforce by training, for example, training themselves, going to school, whatever, you can find escape from a lot of these giant obligations that we face.
HANSEN: What effect did the research and writing this book have on how you think about your own aging?
Mr. FISHMAN: You know, I really did feel the time ticked down as I was writing the book, because you can live to be a vital 90-year-old or you can be quite hobbled in your late 50s. And it really gave me a lens in which to see everything that was in my view when I walked out my door. I was really looking at people saying where in the stage of life are they? How dependent are they? How reliant can I be on them? So, now I'm just seeing it everywhere.
HANSEN: Ted Fishman. His new book is called "Shock of Gray." An excerpt appears in today's New York Times magazine. He spoke to us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you very much.
Mr. FISHMAN: Thank you.
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