The Risk-Monger

The following is the first part of a summer series of disquiet.

While the Risk Monger writes this blog to ridicule the fear mongers, there are certain risks that keep him awake at night. No it is not rising sea levels or contaminated food chains, ensuing pandemics or pervasive chemicals – I’ll leave those for the Armageddon aficionados who love the sound of their voices and the fund-raising opportunities. What causes me to panic when the lights are out is the rapidly rising demographic bubble – too many old people.

The rapid rise in life expectancy, the greying of the baby boomers and the significant decline of wealth are pushing western societies to the brink of significant long-term decline – we are living longer, beyond the means to be useful or productive and without maintaining a reasonably positive quality of life. If we continue to do nothing, by 2050, in Europe:

· The elderly population will likely increase by 77%

· The working age to senior age population ratio is forecast to decrease by 50% (less than two workers for every retiree)

· Age-related expenditures could go up to 30% of EU GDP

· Healthcare could comprise 11% of GDP

See the Commission’s 2009 Ageing Report for some frightening scenarios. Much more frightening than anything the University of East Anglia could possibly make up.

Simply put, the catastrophic demographics are the victims of the success of science and industry. Before antibiotics and disinfectants, humans were lucky to live to see grandchildren. Chemicals were designed to extend our lives by controlling heart disease so that most of us could live into retirement. As we are aging, we are living long enough now to manifest different kinds of cancers, but as new treatments, pharmaceuticals and vaccines are being developed, we are finding increased survival rates. Science and industry have beaten back the threats of nature, extending life to the final frontier: the brain. Many of us will have bodies that go on well past their warranties, but will succumb to different forms of dementia and depression – an extremely slow, sad and disgraceful process of dying. Living longer has been a major achievement of science; living better has become a challenge for society.

Policymakers have pretended that this is not a pressing issue – using the smokescreens of climate change, food safety and immigration to distract the populations from real problems they are incapable of solving. What risks do we face?

· the financial crisis has left us with deficits far too great to handle the pension demands, exploding healthcare costs and future productivity declines (there is no money and extending the retirement age by two years is like spitting at a forest fire);

· We are facing a skills shortage in the chronic healthcare service: the private sector sees little opportunity in chronic care;

· Families have become generally less cohesive and more individualistic (responsibility deficit)

· Alarmingly, most of the organisations that care for aged people and raise their issues were founded and run by the elderly (usually spouses as elsewhere, there seems to be a concern deficiency).

Societies in the past handled the aged in what some would argue were less than humane manners. Inuit peoples would put those past their productive years on icebergs, nomads would leave their aged behind; flu pandemics or cold waves would cull elderly populations; … today we put our “no longer productive or useful populations” in homes and pretend they are no longer there. Our humanity may be our demise.

It is clear that by the time I reach an age of incompetence (some have argued that I am well past that already!), society will not have the means to take care of me (nor the interest). There has been no effort to address the problem of an aging society, and no means to in any case. As our societal values continue to evolve into an ever more pure individualism, I should not expect to burden my great grandchildren to take actions on my behalf. At some point, someone will have to turn my body off. It would be irresponsible for me not to take action to prevent such a situation.

I am turning 50 in three years and I have two objectives. I hope to do my first full triathlon (I am getting bored with running marathons) and I plan, for the first time in my life, to start smoking. I can expect the cancer to arrive within 40 years (around the same time as my dementia) and will be able to release society and my family from the burden of my body. And besides, in those 40 years I can enjoy what I am told is the wonder drug of nicotine. It might also help me sleep at night!

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  1. David,

    With a background in finance, this is a topic that I have read and thought a lot about in the past. I fear you are correct about a number of points. I’d like to focus on one if I may – extending working ages by 2 years.

    As you put it, this is incredibly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Shockingly so.

    However, it could also be argued that doing something about it would be a catastrophe as well. I can recall a number of years ago, calculating with my best financial spreadsheet in front of me, the total amount I really needed to be saving each month into a pension scheme if I wanted to retire as I wanted. My aims were fairly modest in the grand scheme of things.

    The result?

    At age 30, I needed to be saving just over 800GBP per month until age 65!!

    If the entire population of a country actually tried to do this, the economy would grind to a halt as consumer spending stopped, stock markets would boom because of the huge inward flood of money and inflation would rise as all that money started to bid up the prices of stocks, residential property and many other asset classes.

    Thus, I know how much I ought to be saving and I am doing nowhere near enough (but well above most national averages). What chance the rest?

    Therefore, I concur – it is too frightening to think about.

    Best wishes,


  2. Thanks Stuart for keeping me awake a little more. The financial crisis put this risk even more in light. The decline in personal wealth (property, savings, investments) and the subsequent loss of sovereign wealth means there are no means left – the cupboard is bare and soon we will soon have to shrug and tell our seniors (and their children) that they are on their own (at a time of increasing life expectancy and decreasing societal cohesion).
    Any money that we are printing at the moment (Yikes!) is going to combat climate change and subsidise farmers.

  3. An irony I often see is that everyone (at least the EU policy people I seem to be interviewing) all says that the cost of taking action now is much cheaper than the long-term cost of waiting and doing nothing. On which topic?

    Innovation, social policy, climate change, energy supply and efficiency, healthcare (related to this post) and probably more that I don’t know or follow.

    Luckily the cost is lower to act now. But as you say, the cupboard is bare. Actually, we have built a lot more cupboards and stripped them as well…

    I think most people of my age group really do not believe that there will be any social security / state pension when they get to that age. But we will have had to contribute to older generations retirements and then fund our own. That won’t be cheap!!

    If only there were some simple answers 🙁

  4. Dear David,
    Great to read your stories. You point to a really important topic that is difficult to address at the ‘macro’ level. At the personal level, the trick is to get many children (we haver 4), and then to get trained in ‘story telling’. That way, when you get old, you can read to your grandchildren and can be reassured that they will not let you down in your old days. Regards Mark

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