My Japanese granny didn't want to go to the doctor. Hospitals, she said, were for old people. By old, my 92-year-old grandma wasn't including herself. In a country of more than 32,000 centenarians, she still has eight years to go before she reaches an age that she considers truly elderly. Lest you think that my granny is a drain on Japanese society, consider this: through her late 80s, she continued to dabble in real estate. Every so often, she still makes her own rice-bran pickles and, as a devoted yoga practitioner, she is bendier than I am.
The combination of declining fertility and longer life spans has led to a surprising demographic development. Whereas in the 1970s it was commonly said that the world would have too many people, by the 1990s it was fashionable to argue that, for some developed nations, the opposite would soon be true. Soon, the argument went, there would not be enough able-bodied, young workers to support an infirm, gray-haired population.
Well, maybe not. There's no question that taking care of the elderly and frail will incur huge costs, stretching already overburdened pension and health-care systems. But with people living longer and continuing to contribute productively to society, we need to recalibrate just what we mean by old. In Japan, for instance, more than a quarter of the population is currently at the age of 60 or older, a figure that's set to reach 42% by 2050. Many of these folks are hardly sitting idly at home. One in three Japanese aged 60 or over is still part of the labor force.
Keeping older folks employed is particularly important because by mid-century, says the U.N., the world will have more elderly people than children. To compensate, several European nations have raised retirement ages by as much as five years, while expanding anti-age-discrimination laws. By 2050, nearly a third of the developed world's labor force will be aged 50 or older, according to U.N. predictions.
Many elderly are spending more, too. While a good chunk of their savings will be needed to fund longer retirements and higher health payments, older people have considerable purchasing power. Britons over 50 years of age, for instance, control 75% of the country's wealth, according to Abbey National Bank. Businesses catering to a so-called silver economy are booming, offering everything from elderly-friendly housing to trips for retiree globetrotters.
With the older generation controlling so much of the world's money, it's hardly fair to dismiss senior citizens as an inevitable burden on society. "Many Japanese are living so long, it's like they've been given second lives," says Toshiko Katayose, the 58-year-old editor of a Tokyo magazine dedicated to older people. "They're doing everything with energy: working, turning kimonos into cool patchwork designs; even doing math drills to keep mentally fit."
As for my grandmother, she, like many older Japanese, is actively engaged in politics. One of the problems she sees with Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda? At 72 years old, he may be a little unseasoned.