Elephants In Our Room - Over-Aging


In the year of my birth the life expectancy for males in Australia was 55 years. Today it is 80 years, one of the highest in the world. That’s a massive 40% increase. It’s even higher for females. But that incredible rise is about to be overshadowed. Children born today can expect to live to 100. And medical science is telling us that children born 20 years from now will probably live to be 150. The birth rates have abated over last 50 years, and continue to do so in developed countries, meaning that we are headed to a whole new demographic. Soon the majority of the population will be what we currently refer to as “elderly”. And the implications are mind-boggling.

Firstly, the traditional social welfare system is not geared to afford such a scenario. A main concern is that the number of people of a working, taxable age will shrink or become stagnant. And the cost of medical care will explode. All this will inevitably mean higher indirect taxes, with the GST rate bound to rise. Of course the problem with this is that it adversely affects the poor the hardest, and with the wealth inequity rising at almost the same rate as life expectancy, they will be hit hard. Governments need to start long-term planning for the aging scenario. And simply increasing the retirement age is not the answer. The reasons for this are numerous and mostly obvious.

For a start, it is a one-size-fits-all assumption. While a journalist, for example, could probably work until they are 80, a tradesman would struggle. Either way, energy levels diminish considerably as we get older. That would need to be factored into the equation. And the existing exponential increase in mental health and dementia disease would mean that an increasing proportion of older people would simply be unable to work. The number of people on what we now know as the “Disability Support Pension” would mount significantly.

Secondly, our bodies could not possibly provide a fulfilling existence for the final 50 years of our lives (after, say, 100). The majority of people would be physically incapacitated and require day-to-day assistance just to survive. They would most likely be incontinent and have limited intellectual and emotional capacity. They would be unlikely to remember the past, particularly yesterday. They would be manually fed by carers who would also be responsible for their daily hygiene. They would be on multiple medications. And the vast majority of these people would simply wish they were dead. The financial and emotional burden upon younger family members would be onerous.  The biggest industries would be in the fields of medicine, chemistry and aged care. The proliferation of nursing homes would be astronomical. And almost every second job would be created by aged care demands.

Contrary to popular perception, overpopulation is currently not a threat to our planet. Because of declining birth rates in developed countries, many are encouraging couples to have more children. Japan’s population would completely disappear at their current birth rate of 1.3 children per household. Russia is now paying people to have children, while China is reviewing its one-child policy. ┬áBut all this is predicated upon current longevities. If the average life-expectancy increases at the estimated rates, overpopulation is inevitable and sustainability becomes the ultimate challenge.

I recently heard a prominent doctor say that if we can’t handle the effects of over-aging, can’t adapt as fast as the developments in treatments, drugs and other cures for human disease we should abandon medical research immediately. It’s a conundrum worth considering.

Geoff Mooney