Journalist Fishman (China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World, 2006) takes a sober, in-depth look at the challenge of providing for an aging population.
By artfully juxtaposing anecdotal evidence of the lucky ones who have “cheated at the actuarial tables”—e.g., his 80-something mother who dances at swinging parties, and youthful 75-year-old retirees living it up in Florida, “God’s Waiting Room”—with the dependent elderly unable to care for themselves, the author makes a convincing case that we must be prepared to pay a significant price for the increased longevity of the world’s population. While not denying that a healthy lifestyle is an important factor in allowing an increasing number of people to enjoy an active life into their 70s and beyond, Fishman sees the extension of longevity as a problematic global phenomenon, primarily the result of abundant and reliable food, improved public-health measures and more accessible and effective antibiotics. An unintended consequence of a longer-lived population is the increase of the frail elderly, who will place an increasing burden on younger people who make up the workforce and who will be called upon as caregivers. While Europeans enjoy the benefit of early retirement and are reluctant to extend their working years, Americans over 55 are having increasing difficulty finding employment. At the same time, more women work outside the home, marry at a later age and are giving birth to fewer children. One answer would be for more older people to continue working, but under the pressures of globalization, Fishman sees the opposite tendency. Companies are driven by global competition to jettison older, higher-paid workers in order to drive down wages while lower-paid women are encouraged to join the workforce without adequate provision for childcare.
A timely wake-up call.