Sometime in the very near future, the world will witness something that has never before happened in the history of homo sapiens: the number of people 65 and older will be larger than the number of children under the age of 5.
Demographic experts call it “the crossing.” It’s the point at which the upward moving line on the age chart representing people 65 and up crosses the declining line representing children under the age of 5. The result is like a big X on a graph, because once the crossing occurs, those two trend lines are forecast to continue until, by 2050, the number of senior citizens will be more than double the number of young children.
Why is this happening? The old age part is the easiest to explain: advances in medicine and treatment of disease are allowing people to live much, much longer than they ever have before. We’re routinely setting records on life expectancy and the number of people who have lived past 90 and even 100.
The other line on the graph, though, isn’t so readily explained. In some countries, people are just having fewer children, or no children at all. This isn’t a worldwide phenomenon, but one that has focused on certain “first-world” countries. Japan, the European countries, and Canada are all among the oldest countries in the world. In Japan, 26.6 percent of the population already is over age 65.
It’s not hard to foresee the serious challenges posed by these long-term trends. Without young people in the demographic pipeline to grow up, get jobs, and contribute their tax dollars, it’s hard to see how the social welfare model can be sustained. The health care and retirement payment costs of a growing number of elderly ultimately will overwhelm the tax contributions of a shrinking number of workers. And eventually, old people do die — which means that the “old” countries will soon become much less populated countries. What will it mean to Japanese culture and the Japanese social model and, for that matter, Japanese influence on the world stage when that country’s population is but a fraction of its current size?
One other thing about demographic trends — they’re not readily reversed. We’ve been moving toward “the crossing” for decades, and soon it will be here. Get used to seeing a lot of gray hair in the world, folks.