Why you shouldn’t fear the gray tsunami

Many worry that aging populations will doom the world economy and make life miserable for everyone. Here’s why that’s wrong.

The aging of the world is happening fast. Americans 65 and older are now 16% of the population and will make up 21% by 2035. At that point, they will outnumber those under 18. In China the large numbers of people born before the one-baby policy was introduced in 1979 are swelling the ranks of older people, even as younger age groups shrink. Other countries are even older. Japan leads—more than a quarter of its population is 65 or older—but Germany, Italy, Finland, and much of the rest of the European Union aren’t far behind. A quarter of the people in Europe and North America will be 65 or older by 2050.

This trend is being driven by lower fertility rates (women in almost all countries are having fewer babies) and longer lives. While life expectancy has slowed its increase in some advanced countries in recent years, it continues its upward trend worldwide. A female baby born today in Japan is expected on average to live to 87.

Not only is the overall population aging; you will probably spend much more of your life being old. In 1960, if you were 65, you could expect to live to around 79. These days, you’re expected to live to nearly 85. If you’re already 75, you should expect to live until 87.

It’s a huge shift that is changing our economy, our social and cultural values, and even the way we perceive and plan our lives.

Living better, but not longer

The increase in life expectancy over the last hundred years has been one of our great technological achievements. At the start of the 20th century, average life expectancy was around 50; by 1960 it was 70, and by 2010 it was up to nearly 80. Most of the early progress was due to keeping children healthier—in 1900 nearly one in four died before age 10. Later progress came in the treatment of things like cardiovascular disease, allowing most people to live into their 70s.

But don’t expect this remarkable run to continue. Average life expectancy is leveling off and appears to be hitting a ceiling at just a little over 80. S. Jay Olshansky, at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s school of public health, has been predicting this slowdown for years. He says we’re near our upper limit for average life spans. “Possibly we can get it up from 80 to 85,” he says, noting that already “Japan is closing in on it.”

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