It seems like yesterday my kids were underfoot. Then I look in the mirror and get a reality check. I may feel 35, but I’m now at the age my younger self would declare “ancient.” And I’m not the only one. Just over half of my baby boomer contemporaries have already retired. And as the largest generation ages, so too does the nation at large.
Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth!
Many voices on the right have used the coming graying of America to push their own agendas. Author Jonathan V. Last wrote a whole book on the coming “Demographic Disaster.” The New York Times employs several columnists who feel the need to lament the loss of the “traditional family” and badger (middle class, white) American women to have more babies. And then there are the voices on the fringe, who throw around nausea-inducing phrases like “Demographic Winter of White America.”
I do a lot of traveling. I have yet to see a shortage of white people – or white babies – in any place I’ve visited.
A lot of their concerns are cultural. But they prefer to speak in terms of economics. The nagging “make babies for the fatherland” pitch seems somehow less distasteful if cloaked in arguments about the gross domestic product and economic stagnation.
Nobody denies that our nation will need to make changes to cope with an older population. Maybe we’ll need fewer nursery schools, and more nursing homes. Some astute doctors-in-training may pursue gerontology over pediatrics. And yes, some adjustments to Social Security and Medicare are probably inevitable. Such is life.
But are we doomed? Is the nation that survived our bloody beginnings, the Civil War, two world wars and 9-11 going to be brought down by wrinkles? I don’t think so. And that’s why my organization, Population Connection, is bringing together opinion leaders in the fields of business, economics, demography, and aging this Friday to discuss policies that can facilitate a healthy, thriving economy in an era of small families. We’d love to have you join us via our livestream here.
Maybe we’ll need to make it easier for American families to juggle children and careers. Providing incentives for workplaces to build jobs around people rather than shoving employees into prefabricated positions is one option. Maybe a mother of young children and a not-ready-to-retire 70-year-old want to share a job. Or maybe a rural resident with high-speed Internet and impressive credentials wants to telecommute from his farm.
Maybe we should make our cities friendlier for our most experienced citizens. Many retirees have a lifetime worth of knowledge to share. Adapting services to make them inclusive of older people not only improves their quality of life – it can also reduce health costs and boost the economy through their continued participation in community life, according to the World Health Organization.
Another option is to attack poverty head-on. Currently, 16 million American children are living below the poverty line. Yes, kids can rise from nothing to everything – our own president is the child of a single mother who needed food stamps. But growing up poor makes it that much harder to achieve your dreams. Instead of shaming American women to have more babies, why don’t we ensure the best possible life for those who are already here?
A growing population alone does nothing to ensure prosperity. In fact, it can hinder it. Most of the places on Earth with the highest birthrates – Afghanistan, Niger, Uganda – are extremely poor, while some of the places with the lowest birthrates – Japan, Germany, Singapore – are wealthy and offer residents a good quality of life. South Koreans might wring their hands over too few babies, but rest assured they wouldn’t swap demographics with Sudan.
Yes, when America looks in the mirror, it sees more gray hair and wrinkles. But that’s nothing to panic about. Join us as we talk about the challenges and opportunities of an aging population. Our best days might well be ahead.
John Seager is President of Population Connection, the nation’s largest grassroots population organization.