I have been reading about what economists refer to as the “dependency ratio” or in simple terms, the number of workers in the economy compared to the number of children and retired people they are required to support. It is not surprising that economists have quantified through this ratio what common sense tells us i.e. that the number of old people as a percentage of our population is increasing dramatically. If this is quite apparent in the United States, it is even more dramatic in the rest of the world. The dependency ratio in Europe, China and Japan will increase significantly more than in in the United States in the next 20 to 30 years. In large part this is the result of progress in the field of medicine and a much longer expected life span. This good occurrence then leads to a huge problem: how will the U.S. and the world economy support all these old folks?
Which leads me to think of other instances where a good development in the evolution of human-kind resulted in a great problem. The first that comes to mind is the invention of dynamite by Alfred Nobel. Nobel was widely known as the “merchant of death” for his invention of something which could result in the killing of more people in less time than ever before. Of course, explosives also gave rise to the ability to construct all sorts of tunnels and roadways and other good improvements of great benefit to people. The other is the splitting of the atom which gave us nuclear energy but also the atomic bomb and the potential to destroy human kind totally. The problem of an ever increasing population of idle old people which results from all the great improvements in medicine, life style, and health care could become much more vexing than either dynamite or nuclear energy.
Some economists predict that it will not be feasible to both maintain benefits for poor people and also take care of old people. This is true under the current state of world affairs. The political leaders of today as well as of the near future will be constantly faced with the Hobbesian choice between food for the old people and food stamps for the poor. But it won’t be quite as dramatic as, “do we allow old people to starve or poor people to starve”- at least in the foreseeable future.
Well then, what a bleak outlook for human-kind. I suppose because I am a member of the baby boomer generation and, to some degree, the cause of this dilemma, I could take the position that even with the advance in life expectancy, it is not my problem because I won’t live long enough to see the full effect of the looming tragedy. Unfortunately, that idea offers little solace or hope for my children or grandchildren. Further, as an educator, my entire professional life has been an attempt to make things better for future generations. I would think that I should at least take a stab at what every pageant contestant seems to include in her speech, “I’m for world peace”. So here is my two cents worth, to coin a phrase.
The economic predictions are only relevant if the vast majority of human-kind stays the same as it is. If there are sea changes in the way people and governments operate, the predictions change. For example if people did not have to engage in and be constantly prepared for war, there would be no problem in both taking care of old people and helping the poor. Our military budget if utilized for more positive endeavors could easily maintain the predicted old-age dependency ratio as well as make sure poor people do not starve. Of course world leaders have been talking of this for literally generations. I have little hope that evil will exit the world scene any time soon. We will always be in a contest with evil to some degree or other. However, it is just that…to some degree or other. If the fight could be somehow lessened, the degree diminished, then the dire predictions fail.
Another example is, if the vast disparity in wealth among people and countries could be somehow diminished the predictions fail. Once again leaders at all levels have been exposing and decrying the greed that places extreme wealth in the hands of a privileged few while millions in lower economic spheres suffer. Greed as well as constant warring are seemingly intractable problems.
I have learned over the years that there are two circumstances by which people change for the better. The first is that they become so miserable and desperate that change is the only option. In other words the pain is so great that they have to change. The other is that they become enlightened through education, and they perceive that unless change is made, future pain will result. I see examples of these two types of changes occurring every single day with young people at school. One child perceives that unless good character and responsibility are maintained the future is bleak and he or she changes, while another child ignores responsibility and character, and only changes when the pain of consequences is inflicted.
The solution for future generations is not in some political miracle or what is known in ancient Greek theatre as a “Deus ex Machina”, but in large part in enlightened education. The problem of the dependency ratio will not go away. What are the possibilities? To ignore the problem and only change when the pain of poor people and old people starving while billionaires luxuriate becomes too great to ignore further; or, to begin today to make a sea change in human behavior through an enlightened education? It would seem clear that the latter is the better choice.
Dr. Carolyn Koos