The Old World

The pros of a rapidly aging planet.


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The world is getting very old. It is graying and wrinkling and fraying at the edges. Its voice is growing hoarse and it is finding it harder to tie its shoes.


There’s never been a time when so many people have been so old. Throughout the developed world, there are now more elderly than children. The details vary but go roughly like this: The number of people who are 60 and older is set to triple in the next 40 years. By 2050, there will be more people aged 65 and older than children under 14 for the first time in history. By 2150, one in three people will be over 65. In developed countries, aging is coming sooner than that. By 2050, half of the people in Spain will be 55 or older. In England, there are already more baby boomers than teenagers. In Japan, the world’s oldest country, more than 21 percent of the population is over 65. The world is getting older and the process, given current trends, cannot be reversed. There may never again be a world that is mostly young.

The world has never aged like this before, and the aging of the world is happening everywhere. It is true that, now, developed countries are aging fastest, but it won’t be this way for long. Countries such as Brazil and Sri Lanka may not experience rapid aging now, but when they do, it will happen in just a couple of decades, while the rest of the world needed the entire 20th century.

People worry whether our social welfare systems will collapse. Whether we will have enough hospitals and housing. Whether overall human productivity will decrease. In the New York Times Magazine, Ted C. Fishman worries that global power may be determined by how much a country is willing to invest in care for its elderly, that the old may be pushed aside if they prove too costly. He worries that the old, unable to work, will live in poverty, but that the very act of an old country taking young workers from young countries will just hasten the aging of our last remaining young nations.

And yet, we haven’t really asked ourselves just what it will feel like to live in an old world. Will reminiscing replace love songs? Will wisdom replace surprise?

As ever, fiction is there to help us think about this reality. The 2006 movie Children of Men (and the novel it took inspiration from) tells a dystopian tale where humans on Earth can no longer procreate. In Kurt Vonnegut’s striking “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”, several generations of one family live together in a single apartment and eat processed sawdust. They are ruled by 172-year-old Gramps Schwartz, prone to such inspirational guidance as, “Hell, we did that 100 years ago.” An old world, in these stories, is a tragic world. It is a tired world packed with people and a lingering atmosphere of loss.

Perhaps, though, there is something poetic about a world filled with the elderly. I imagine it could feel like wandering through a primeval forest — tall strong trees shading the green vegetation below, lots of rotting, lots of mist. One can imagine this world full of ancients to be gentler, too, where everything is softer, and time is forced to move at a slower pace, as it is for the cows who mosey across the mad streets of Delhi, assured that the traffic will part for them (and it does). Some are saying that a new era of stability and peace will come in the new old world, that we’re already seeing the benefits (look how contented Europe is), that wars are made by the restless, dissatisfied young.

How we understand longevity is quickly changing too. “Old” used to mean over 60. Yet in the U.S. and Japan alone, there are already tens of thousands of people more than 100 years old. A world of 60-year-olds looks like kindergarten compared to a world of centenarians. A single centenarian was once god-like; now she is becoming mainstream. It must feel transcendent to live past 100. You are long past living on borrowed time. You are living time, mortality touching the infinite. What says “human possibility” more than such a long, long life?

Raymond Kurzweil — inventor, visionary, enthusiast — is one person who is excited about the new possibilities in the old world. Kurzweil has devoted his life to developing futuristic technologies such as computer programs that help the deaf and the blind read and speak, and supporting artificial intelligence research — technologies that essentially aim to expand the limits of human biology. Kurzweil is especially excited about nanotechnologies and he thinks they will change our very understanding of what it is to be old, that they will let us think about being old in a completely new way. Kurzweil and his ilk see a future where the same technology that will allow us to accomplish fantastical feats such as, say, emailing a pair of pants, will allow old bodies to house young minds, to be strong even as they age. It will be a world where senility could disappear, and an elderly woman could give birth to a child. (Of Japan’s centenarians, 85 percent are women. Knowing that women tend to outlive men, this statistic makes us consider something else: The old world is a world of old ladies.)

I like his thinking, that Kurzweil. It’s the kind of pro-technology optimism that makes us believe our problems will turn out all right so long as we keep thinking about them. The old world could be a world where the old care for themselves, are never fired, and are as busy as ever. The old world will be filled with kindness and calm, where smiling grandmothers can tell their childhood stories to their own young children well into their 90s. Can we accept the alternative? That would be a world of sickness and sterility, a world of universal decay, where putrescence and forgetting are the norm, like the Weimar Republic gone global.

There is something beautiful about the thought of old ladies bearing children, about a near-completed life giving birth to a new one. And yet, there is something missing. Much of the conversation about the new old world discusses how life will be for the old. But it doesn’t often consider how it will feel for the young to no longer live in a young world. A world where the idea of youth has been shifted to the old.

A truism: The world is old because there is less youth. We are getting older, but the world is aging primarily because we are bringing fewer children in to replace us. All the gains made, then, in tackling the problems of the old may well leave more problems for the young. The young are likely to shoulder more responsibilities. For instance, it’s been said that as health care costs increase for governments, these might be offset by lower tertiary education costs. What need will there be for so many educated young people? The young will have to fill the jobs where their young bodies are needed: jobs of standing, carrying, lifting, going. The young may be the new beasts of burden. They will likely have to work sooner, and harder, and for longer. At the very least, the way young people have experienced the world since human history began, as a young world, will be changed. And so it’s possible that the way the young experience the new old world is that they too will feel old.

In California, in Florida, in the German countryside, and the cities of Belgium, so many of the old appear happy. They ride bicycles and wear flowered sundresses above the knee and travel the world and suffer from mostly minor, disagreeable ailments of the digestive system or blood. They have homes and friends, and pensions, and manageable debt. To look at them, we think the old world could be lovely and easy. By comparison, the life of the young in the same places seems fraught, lonely, expensive. It reminds me of that Shaw quote about the shame of wasting youth on the young. Shaw’s witticism may become a prediction. Youth may no longer be for the young at all.

Do you know that Lu Yu poem, “Written in a Carefree Mood”? I guess I imagine a Kurzweilian old world could be like that:

Old man pushing seventy,
in truth he acts like a little boy,
whooping with delight when he spies some mountain fruits,
laughing with joy, tagging after village mummers;
with the others having fun stacking tiles to make a pagoda,
standing alone staring at his image in a jardiniere pool.
Tucked under his arm, a battered book to read,
just like the time he first set off for school.

I’ve often suspected it’s a lot of pressure on the elderly to impart wisdom on the young. More often than not, the best they can come up with is, “Hell, we did that 100 years ago.” Maybe in the new old world, the old can instead teach the young something else: how to not lose their youth. • 21 October 2010



Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at