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The Whole Point

Just when you thought it was safe to grow old, out of the BBC surges "The Age Wave" (Prime, 5 September). Yes folks, it's yet another gloom and doom report on the unmitigated disaster poised to break over humanity when the OLD (boo, hiss, throw rotten apples and walking frames) begin to outnumber the YOUNG (clap, cheer, throw fresh strawberries and crates of Coke).

There is something extraordinarily repulsive about a plump, fortyish, highly paid white man raving on about the impossibility of providing a decent standard of living and health care for older people in the future, because there will be too many useless parasites like them, and too few useful workers like him. The programme made great play with brandished that common misleading statistical device, beloved of our own anti-pension crusaders, of presenting the "dependency ratio" as if it meant solely the ratio of those over 65 to those of working age, without including the changing numbers of dependent young. However, we were shown shrinking classes of children in an Italian village, with never a word about the other factors leading to depopulation - though they did mention that men were reluctant to marry because jobs were so scarce, and women were reluctant to have children because they needed to take care of their own economic security first. It never seemed to occur to the programme makers that this information rather belied their contention about too many older people and too few young people leading to acute labour shortages - though they did admit that Britain was not yet facing this terrible problem.

Ah, but what about the USA? As everyone knows, the US economy is doing so well that it has "full employment" - that is, just over 4 out of every 100 would-be workers are unemployed. And indeed, we did see an older woman going cheerfully back into the workforce as a temp, for $8.50 an hour. We also heard briefly from David "Agequake" Miles, saying firms would just have to make jobs more attractive to older people, if they wanted them to stay. But this piece of common sense came after the news, with examples, that British firms were continuing to forcibly "retire" people once they reached the decrepit old age of 50.

Miles also prophesied that Britain's health system would not be able to cope with the "influx" of older people, because, as the presenter repeatedly informed us in a shocked tone, old people use more health care than the young. Yes, they do - which is precisely as it should be in any reasonably healthy society. Do we really think that young people should be needing hip replacements and cataract operations? Or do we think that no one should get them?

Then we heard from Peter "Gray Dawn" Peterson. His focus on the "Floridization" of the developed world was the central device used in the programme. They didn’t tell you that he invented this scary concept. Nor did they tell you that this is the man who writes that global aging is a bigger threat to the West than global warming or nuclear meltdown.* Not only it will cost "quadrillions of dollars" over the next century, but the cost of keeping the elderly in life and health will put "immense pressure on governments to cut back" on their defence spending! And smaller families will mean smaller armies!

"No!" I hear you gasp. But wait, there's worse. Peterson has also darkly hinted that in Europe, seniors are exerting political pressure through "labor unions and (often union-affiliated) political parties". Meanwhile in Russia, the Communists "have repositioned themselves as the party of retirees". In the future, he warns, the Chinese may set up fully funded retirement schemes. Then the West will come to depend on all that capital. And some day, the Chinese might demand that the US "shore up its Medicare system the way Americans once demanded that China reform its human rights policies as a condition for foreign assistance". Now there's a terrifying prospect - the Yellow Peril forcing a reluctant USA to waste money on improving the health of its own burgeoning Grey Peril, instead of investing it in high-tech weaponry and genetically engineered fast food.

While such crazed predictions don't routinely surface in the mainstream media, the attitude to ageing they embody is extremely widespread - as "The Age Wave" showed. Why is discussion of demographic change so emotively larded with words like "hit", "engulfed", "swamped", "threatened" and "endangered"? What's more, why is this impending "threat" not to the elderly of today or tomorrow, but to business and the future non-elderly? Why are they painted as the unwitting victims of the impossible demands arising from the growing proportions of older people?

Nothing else reveals the limits of conventional thinking on society and the economy as clearly as the issue of population ageing. Alarmist, seemingly fact-based stories such as "The Age Wave" rely on a whole raft of pernicious hidden assumptions. First, old people have nothing to contribute. They do not "work". Therefore they are solely a cost to and a burden on the non-elderly. Secondly, there are only three ways to pay for keeping old people alive and healthy, never mind contributing. Either old people will have to go on "working" well into their seventies; or they will individually have to save enough to live on and buy health care for twenty or thirty years after they retire; or all employed people will have to pay more tax. Any other course of action, such as New Zealand's simple, egalitarian pension system, is, we are told, "unaffordable".

These assumptions are false. Older people contribute an enormous amount to society - providing they can maintain a decent standard of living. The "cost" of pensions is in fact simply a redistribution - and one which has enormous benefits for business, since it enables so many people (and even more in the future) to go on consuming and contributing. Imagine what would have happened to the New Zealand economy if Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley had succeeded in reducing National Superannuation to a miserly means-tested benefit. Overnight, enormous amounts of money would have vanished from local communities all over the country. (Yes, I know the theory says that we could then have cut taxes and put the money to more productive uses - like investing in overseas share markets, perhaps?) And that was before the full impact of the "Age Wave".

If we see tax as nothing but an impost on productive business, then of course we can't afford the elderly. Let's not delude ourselves about them (us) being able to save or earn enough to live on. The only way to support them is through giving them (us) a share of current production. If we can't do that, why bother doing anything? What should we do instead - shoot them?

"The Age Wave" is telling lies. Keeping the old is not an unjust burden on the rest of society. It's the whole point.

*To save you reading his book, a neat summary of Peterson's preoccupations appeared in "Gray Dawn: The Global Ageing Crisis", Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 1999.

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