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We Should Aim for a 'Graying' Society

By B. Meredith Burke
The San Diego Union Tribune, August 5, 2001

A recent Associated Press article indicates how alluring Americans still find the appeal of a youthful population. It acclaimed "the influx of young immigrant families with an exodus of older, wealthier residents" as helping "California resist the graying seen across America during the last decade."

But why should we want to resist "graying?" Graying of a population is what demarcates postindustrial society from those of the third world. We know how to achieve a very youthful population.

Let women bear an average of six children and the result is a population whose median age -- that dividing the population in half -- is between ages 15 to 18. Even the demographically naive must concede that resources to invest in the next generation are meager when divided among so many young dependents.

Such a society also has high growth potential. What we seek on a finite globe is an end to population growth. At that point birth rates will equal death rates.

That California ranks fifth youngest among the 50 states is no cause for rejoicing. Due to births to the large number of immigrants during the 1990s, the number of people under age 20 rose 18 percent compared to the national increase of 13 percent. Our median age is two years younger than the national median of slightly over 35.

One result is seen in our crowded schools. More frighteningly, we confront the prospect of another baby boom in a few years as augmented numbers attain childbearing age. Many in the upcoming cohort come from backgrounds which prize early and high childbearing, a marker of the rural societies from which the parents recently emigrated.

Meanwhile, California's native-born population still reflects the postwar baby boom. First baby boomers crowded our schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Then they swelled the working-age population and the number of households. Soon the cutting edge of the boomers will reach retirement age.

California will then confront a battle for social resources between the aging baby boomers and the enlarged number of children disproportionately descended from post-1980 immigrants. This will occur against a background of a high growth rate in the general population. Unless immigration policy changes, our present 35 million will reach 50 million circa 2025: five times our ecologically sustainable level of 10 million, last seen in 1950.

Despite what the AP disparages, a "grayed" society with a constant population will not consist of only the elderly. Assuming we reach stability via low and equal death and birth rates (few would opt for the alternative of high death and birth rates) the median age doesn't rise up to 60 or 70 years. Rather, in a stationary low-mortality society, one-fourth will be under age 20, one-fourth over age 60, and the median age will be about 39. Unlike what doomsayers foretell, the median age of a sustainable society will not rise indefinitely ("a country of old men"): the young and the old will be equal in number.

To shrink back to a sustainable level will require several decades where birth rates are less than death rates, and where immigration does not take up the slack. The median age will temporarily rise to higher levels. Although such population aging and shrinkage can be swiftly reversed by women bearing just one child more (two children instead of one), where below-replacement fertility is now prevailing cries of depopulation are resonating.

In Italy, with Western Europe's lowest fertility rate, the population is projected to shrink to 42 million in 2050 from 57 million in 1995 assuming a constant birth rate and unchanged immigration. The median age will rise to 53 years. Yet at 42 million Italy will be far more ecologically sustainable. The Oakland-based think tank Redefining Progress has calculated the ecological footprint, the land equivalent required to produce the renewable resources consumed by and recycle the wastes produced by each country. Italy currently has an ecological deficit of 7 acres per person; the United States a deficit of 10. Both countries will be better off with lesser populations.

The path to stability will be marked by a graying population. The sooner it arrives, the less environmental degradation we will inflict upon our stressed habitat -- and the healthier an environmental legacy we will bequeath to posterity.

So let us work for, not resist an aging society. It is the only one that can save us from our demographic profligacy of the past several decades.

Burke is a senior fellow at Negative Population Growth Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based organization.

Posted with permission from the author

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