Aug 26, 2016 12:00 AM
Ken Taylor

In many countries around the world, people are living longer.  At the same time birth rates are declining – sometimes rapidly. The result: More old people; fewer young people. Japan, for example, has one of the world’s lowest birth rates.  Combine that with the world’s highest average life expectancy, and the result is a population that's both rapidly shrinking and rapidly aging.  Now that’s dangerous demographics. 

If Japan were more open to immigration, like Germany, they wouldn’t have the same problem.  Germany’s population is aging but shrinking much more slowly, thanks to immigration. Here in the U.S. we have a low birth rate combined with increasing longevity.  But thanks to a huge influx of immigrants, our population is actually expanding pretty rapidly.  Of course it’s also becoming more ethnically stratified in the process -- with the young being much more ethnically diverse than the old.  Some people find that a dangerous demographic.

But that’s just irrational fears about ethnic diversity talking -- and frankly, fears about the aging of America are driven by myths and prejudices about old people.  People act is if the old are a burden, who take more than they give, and are mostly sick and soaking up expensive care that the young have to pay for. But that’s just ageist nonsense.  People aren’t just living longer,  they’re staying healthy and productive longer too – “seventy is the new fifty,” as they say.  That’s not dangerous -- it’s beneficial.  Productive, healthy old people commit fewer crimes, don’t crowd our prisons, spend time with their grandchildren.

Then again, maybe these worries aren’t necessarily just ageistm. Think about Social Security, or Medicare, or even the Affordable Care Act.  Each rests on an inter-generational compact.   People have to be willing to pay into the system, beginning when they're young, continuing through their work years, then drawing the greatest benefits only when they're older and retired.  Of course, those inter-generational compacts are also darned good things -- Nnot just for the old, but for the young too.  For the old, they provide a measure of retirement security and access to decent medical care.  And for the young, they provide the reasonable expectation of such things in the future.  It seems impossible to have a stable society without having inter-generational compacts in place.

But think of those people who disagree – who dismiss Social Security as a Ponzi scheme where the old rip off the young.  You don’t have to be a right wing ideologue to appreciate the need to balance benefits for the old against burdens on the young.  It’s obviously a lot more challenging to balance the system when too many older people are drawing benefits out and too few younger people are paying in.

But politics aside, what exactly is the philosophical issue here?  Well, it’s about justice -- inter-generational justice.  If it were just about politics, the old would have no worries.  They’ve got the money, the power, and the votes.  The philosophical questions is about what the old owe to the young and what the young owe the old in return.  And how should that calculation change as the ratio of old to young changes so radically.

Or think about it this way. People are living longer, the shape of life is changing -- philosophy should help us understand this change.  It used to be retire early, ten or fifteen years of leisure and then … go gently into that good night.  But that model doesn’t make much sense when people can be healthy and productive into their 80s and 90s.  So does that mean work yourself to the bone until you’re 75 or 80?  Or do we need different models of the whole life course?  Tune in and find out.