Recently, I attended a talk on aging demographics and geriatric care. The speaker has been in the geriatric care area for 15 years. She lamented that if we keep referring to old people as problems and burdens, then the aging demographics would indeed manifest itself as an enormous problem. However, if we think of the old people as clients, who would need our cares and as service providers, who would help us explore, face and understand our own mortality and what is important to our lives, then the forthcoming aging demographics would, in fact, be an amazing blessing to our society.
Her words ring true for me.
As I face my own aging parents, I realize that I would give up a lot (certainly a lot of money) to spend quality time with them and to care for them in their old age. The fact that they will live longer so that I would be more financially capable and flexible to provide them with care in their last 10 years, and that they will be grandparents well into my children’s teenage years (ok, I don’t have kids yet) are blessings. These are the things that are of tremendous benefits to our civilization. But, somehow in the popular media, we have treated the increased life expectancy for our parents and their predictable dependency on us for care as enormous calamities and burden.
Yes, our GDP will probably stagnate or even decline. But GDP is such a tiny measure of what is valuable to our society. GDP is merely a measure of the dollar value of the goods and services we sell to each other. But much of what is important to a human life is not bought or sold and measured by GDP! Friendship does not enter into GDP, love and family do not enter into GDP. A human being caring for another human being and the experiences that we impress on each other do not enter into GDP calculation.
From the non-$$ dimensions, our parents are every bit as productive as their younger selves. They might not be able to design or build new commercial products; they are however, exactly capable of being frail parents and doting grandparents. I have only heard of people, who wished they had more time with their parents and grandparents and of people who gain a deep insight into life through time spent with their dying parents/grandparents.
In the future, many of us would be, in one form or another, a caregiver to the elderly---whether professionally, or simply as a family member. But, I hardly see that as a horrible outcome. It, arguably, is just as interesting a life experience providing warm care to another human being as it is to work on a spreadsheet computing another person’s investment return or to lure young kids into buying the latest smart phones.
Some people worry that there will be a lack of doctors to handle all of the needed cares. I think we simply need to come to the realization that no amount of quality health care---no miracle drugs or operations will keep death away or keep our slow march toward it physically comfortable. I do have a slight concern that geriatric care might crowd out medical resources for providing other health care to the younger part of our society, but frankly, I expect that our society will make sensible choices when the time comes.
Arguably, when our society is older, we might finally realize that we don’t need a new IPhone every 6 months, a whole new wardrobe every season and a new car every three years. So, yes, GDP might decline, but it would be because we demand these baubles less, not because we are less capable of paying for baubles.
From the perspective of producing goods and services, it isn’t clear that our society wouldn’t benefit from producing much less of the things that we don’t need at the expense of depleting the raw resources of this planet. We have been so focused on growing our consumption and calling that progress,that we actually believe that consuming more means a more successful society. Perhaps, this is the universe's way to remind us that it is time to show our children a different measure for life's success and meaning.