Falling Birthrates, More Elderly – An Opportunity?

One of the many ways being childfree has been criticized relates to how it contributes to falling birthrates. Some experts think that low birthrates are not good for the future of countries, or the world, for that matter.  Why?  Because there will be too many old people. As  Bryan Walsh on Times’s Ecocentric blog writes,

“..that global aging is going to present some major challenges,” namely who will “take care of the elderly?” This thinking assumes that the more offspring means more kids who will be there for their parents when they are old.  But just because the offspring are here does not mean they will be “there” for their aging parents.

I don’t mean to sound cold, but one just has to look at the number of elderly in nursing homes for starters.  Many adult children may also want to be there for their aging parents but can’t be, or can’t be as much as they would like, either because of geographical restrictions, work obligations, financial realities or some combination thereof.

If there are going to be even more aged compared to other age groups with the fall of birthrates, what would help? Here’s a few thoughts.

Consider rethinking our current mindset to “stay alive at all costs” when we are old.  What if instead of saying yes to chemotherapy to extend lifespan in one’s elder years (I have seen people as old as 89 do chemo) for example, (to live a bit longer and likely without good quality of life) it became more of the norm to pass on chemo, and “know when it’s time to go”?

petergoodwinRelated to this, have more states with “right to die” laws. Peter Goodwin led the way for Oregon to pass the pioneering Death With Dignity Act. It allows mentally competent people with six months to live (or less) to get medication  that will assist them in ending their lives.  More laws like this would allow the elderly in this situation to have control over the timing of their death (as Goodwin recently did with his own).

But to embrace both of these things, the real mindset that would need to change is around our relationship with death. Rather than hang on to perpetual youth and seeing aging negatively, a world with more elderly might mean we could change our mind about how to live the later years of our lives, not fighting death, but finding our way to embrace and accept, with wisdom and grace, that our lives are coming to an end.

Walsh also asks how we will pay to take care of all the elderly if birth rates continue to fall–mindset shifts on death like these could very well help mitigate the costs associated with trying to make the elderly live as long as possible.

Just maybe, with continued falling birthrates and more elderly, if we played it right it could be a very good thing for how we learn to face the hereafter, not just for ourselves but the population behind us.

What do you think-how to deal with global aging? Do you see a day in which Death With Dignity Acts or the like could be more accepted-even common?

15 thoughts on “Falling Birthrates, More Elderly – An Opportunity?

  1. Couldn’t agree more with the bit on “the right to die.” Even if I wanted kids, I would not want to be a burden on them once I was in a position where I couldn’t take care of myself. Allowing death with dignity does not promote some “better off dead” mentality but in my opinion fosters a society where we value allowing people to have control over their own lives. Much like with reproductive issues, I believe that this is an issue between the individual, their doctor, and those close to us…not between politicians.

    Also, I believe that our society can be very successful as it ages if we encourage lifestyles that promote health and vitality into older age. Older age doesn’t mean becoming feeble; with the right diet, exercise, positive outlook on life, and staying employed/volunteering…life isn’t ending at old age, it’s just beginning! That’s my opinion though….

  2. Hello,

    I am a childfree woman and I totally agree with the changing of attitute towards death. However, I struggle answering a question I sometimes get: “Children are needed because they will be the future nurses and carers of you when you get old”.

    Can anyone suggest a sound and clever response to this.


    1. Susana, How about a question like–Where is the guarantee that kids will be there for their parents when they are old? Here’s the reality–and give them stats on the number of people in nursing homes…they are pretty astounding.

  3. My husband and I talk about this from a business perspective due to his line of work. Everyone kept touting China as the next place to go from a business perspective, but due to their one child per family thing and many choosing to keep only the male children and give up any girls…they’ve got quite a dilemma. Male children, if they are lucky enough to find a wife (because there is no hope for a good majority of them to marry now), end up having to care not only for his parents, but hers. The financial burdens are crazy. So I can see how lack of children hurt the economy and can’t sustain a country’s future growth.

    I think when you are forced to see something from a certain perspective, you’ll eventually (hopefully) learn from the error of your ways. Here in the U.S. I don’t know if we’ll see more age-friendly laws and attitudes any time soon. I’d like that to happen. I think as more and more people find themselves dealing with the issues their aging Boomer generation parents are facing, we’ll see more on this front. But I still think it’ll take a while for the lightbulb to go off. (I’ve already dealt with some of this with my mom, who has now passed, and my dad, who’s health isn’t so hot. But I was born late in my parents like so I’m more sympathetic than most of my peers who’s parents are 15-20 years younger than mine and haven’t had to deal with a lot of these issues.)

    1. I am hoping that baby boomers will want to take more control over the end of their lives, and that an overabundance of elderly will help society loosen the reins on laws about this. It may very well be in the health care system’s economic interest…

  4. Susana, I think we are going to see more and more advances in Health IT that will empower patients to monitor their own health and to do things remotely. And I think that’s a good thing. Some of this stuff is in place already–remote consultations via video conferencing at the nearby clinic, where the doctor is far away. And there are devices–soon to be many more, I think–that will help people with chronic conditions take charge of their health and transmit data to health care professionals (stuff like heart rate, blood pressure, blood work, respiratory rates, etc., etc.). There will of course always be a need for good health care personnel, but I do think that technology will make the greatest impact here.

  5. At the risk of sounding really callous, I’d point out that this would only be a temporary problem over the course of 2-3 generations, at which point the population distribution would even out again. The people not being born today will never grow old and will never require elder care.

    Another way to look at it is to ask whether it’s fair to burden succeeding generations with your reproductive choices today. If I have 5 children and none of them have children, so they grow old without their own children to care for them, then as their parent I’ve helped create the mess that they’re in, maybe even more than they have. If there’s a growing elderly care problem, it’s pronatalism that set it up in the first place.

    At the end of the day, I’m not sure what difference it makes if my kids write a check for the nursing home or if my attorney writes the check for the nursing home.

  6. In reply to Susana’s question:

    The answer depends on how I’m feeling that day or how obnoxious the interrogation is.

    This is one of those “if everyone was childfree, how would that work?” kinds of questions. There’s nothing that says everyone has to choose to be childfree.

    I’d reply that there seems to be no shortage of people in the world who need work, and there’s nothing that says our caregivers have to come from our own families. Just as there are plenty of children out there who need adopting, there seems to be no shortage of people needing jobs.

    I would point out how many older people are STILL taking care of their offspring and their offspring’s children when they’re in their 70’s. You have as much chance of taking care of THEM in your old age as them taking care of you.

    It’s also a lame reason to have children, to make sure that there are enough people around to wipe my generation’s bottoms when we’re older. Sounds like a very selfish reason to have children, if you ask me.

    A really snide quip would be, don’t worry, I’m sure one of your brood will be desperate enough for money that he/she can clean my bedpan.

    Finally, more rationally, you could reply that you’ve crunched the numbers, and given how much it costs to raise a child, therefore how much money you save by not having one, and the money you stand to make from not missing work because you have a child, it makes more financial sense to invest in a real, comprehensive health care package.

  7. My last, most cynical point:

    If we run into a shortage of caregivers in the coming years, the main difference would be that our society would then have an excuse for not taking care of the elderly, instead of the current way of doing things, which is failing to take care of them without ANY excuse for the failure. We’ll just rationalize the failure using better reasons than we did before.

  8. As I near 40, and “My time is running out to have babies!!” comments are coming thick and fast, I am astounded by just how many people use this particular bingo on me.

    As one well spoken commenter pointed out, “If my attorney signs the check for my nursing home or my kids do, what at the end of the day is the real difference?” And…honestly, it’s true. How better to make sure you have control over what really happens? In my thinking, I can save money to plan for this sad inevitability…where there is no guarantee the your kids, no matter HOW much they love you, will be able to afford the best possible care for you that you, yourself might be able to do.

    In most cases that I know of, parents are scrambling to help pay for weddings, first homes down payments, college, etc, well beyond the required “18 years” of legal requirement to support their children. I don’t know ANYONE my age who is socking money away to help parents pay for long term nursing care. They CAN’T, really. By the time this fact presents itself, most people are just finishing paying for the kids to take flight in life, and then they must concentrate on their own retirement needs.

    Usually, the elderly parents assets are liquidated (home, pension, etc) and THAT is what is used to pay for the nursing home. So…in ever decreasing circles…almost always YOU will end up paying one way or another for your elderly medical care yourself anyways. I don’t mean to sound harsh…lots of kids would love to do more for their aging parents…but they simply can’t. In my view…the more I can save (in part by not raising children) will most likely avail me to better care than my imaginary children would be able to afford anyways. And that is if you are lucky enough to have kids who even want to be saddled with this sad responsibility.

    And as someone else said here…”caring for the elderly is a JOB after all, and people will always need JOBS.”

    You might have pointed this out before Laura, (I can’t remember if you posted about this) a study was done that asked elderly people weather having children or not affected their happiness in old age, and to the surprise of many, people who never had children and those who did reported exactly the same level of life satisfaction. The things that saddened them and made old age the most difficult were outstandingly : Heath and financial security.

    And sorry I got off point there, but thank you for bringing up a difficult subject of dying with dignity. I agree, completely, and hope that I am never (or those I love are never) presented with this dilemma…but how wonderful to at least be able to have the CHOICE.

    1. Amy Jane–I may have spoken to research on life satisfaction in one’s later years before, but in researching my next book (which is going to release very soon!) some more studies show that it is not kids that are thing that give older folks the satisfaction, but whether one’s partner/spouse is alive, and if they have financial security. Love and money til the end…

  9. Also, I forgot to add…I know a few friends who are having to stump up on elderly care for their parents now…and they are a little ashamed to admit it…but they really RESENT IT. They indignantly state that “My parents really should have planned better for this you know…”

    And then without a hint of irony say to me “But who will take care of you when…?”


  10. Thank you for this post! I can only say I also hope we rethink the idea of staying alive at all costs. We also really need to get over the idea that adult children are the best caregivers of elderly parents. I have watched my own parents and aunts and uncles attempt to care for my grandma. My parents thought simply visiting was enough, and others just lacked the knowledge to really care for her. Finally, she was placed in a nice nursing home. (It would be impossible to care for her in a private home- she needs round the clock professionals.)
    Sometimes elder care isn’t for the layperson, no matter how well intended.

  11. The real difficulty with this issue is the whole human capital aspect. Ideally we’d have both increasing longevity and, less population growth (but not too much less). The 19th – 20th century boom was too much growth, while the declines of the Age of Migrations, the Plague Years, and the coming 21st – 22nd century one are too much decline. It may not be the right thing to do, not the take the chemo at 70, 80 or even 90. If one still has a good mind and can contribute human capital, and still craves life, then go for the chemo, for sure. Realistically, there need to be major reforms in areas that are too many to count, in order to make having and raising children more appealing to the sorts of educated folk who can bring forth future generations of earners and tax payers. The current pattern whereby the poor and very rich are fecund is leading us back into a two class society in the midst of a new Dark Age.

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