July 20, 2010
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!David Zaruk