"Aging Is a Rich-Country Problem."
NO. Once, demographers believed, following a long line of ancient thinkers from Tacitus and Cicero in late Rome to Ibn Khaldun in the medieval Arab world, that population aging and decline were particular traits of "civilized" countries that had obtained a high degree of luxury. Reflecting on the fate of Rome, Charles Darwin's grandson bemoaned a pattern he saw throughout history: "Must civilization always lead to the limitation of families and consequent decay and then replacement from barbaric sources, which in turn will go through the same experience?"
Today, however, we see that birth rates are dipping below replacement levels even in countries hardly known for luxury. Emerging first in Scandinavia in the 1970s, what the experts call "subreplacement fertility" quickly spread to the rest of Europe, Russia, most of Asia, much of South America, the Caribbean, Southern India, and even Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon, Morocco, and Iran. Of the 59 countries now producing fewer children than needed to sustain their populations, 18 are characterized by the United Nations as "developing," i.e., not rich.
Indeed, most developing countries are experiencing population aging at unprecedented rates. Consider Iran. As recently as the late 1970s, the average Iranian woman had nearly seven children. Today, for reasons not well understood, she has just 1.74, far below the average 2.1 children needed to sustain a population over time. Accordingly, between 2010 and 2050, the share of Iran's population 60 and older is expected to increase from 7.1 to 28.1 percent. This is well above the share of 60-plus people found in Western Europe today and about the same percentage that is expected for most Northern European countries in 2050. But unlike Western Europe, Iran and many other developing regions experiencing the same hyper-aging -- from Cuba to Croatia, Lebanon to the Wallis and Futuna Islands -- will not necessarily have a chance to get rich before they get old.
One contributing factor is urbanization; more than half the world's population now lives in cities, where children are an expensive economic liability, not another pair of hands to till fields or care for livestock. Two other oft-cited reasons are expanded work opportunities for women and the increasing prevalence of pensions and other old-age financial support that doesn't depend on having large numbers of children to finance retirement.
Surprisingly, this graying of the world is not by any means the exclusive result of programs deliberately aimed at population control. For though there are countries such as India, which embraced population control even to the point of forced sterilization programs during the 1970s and saw dramatic reduction in birth rates, there are also counterexamples such as Brazil, where the government never promoted family planning and yet its birth rate went down even more. Why? In both countries and elsewhere, changing cultural norms appear to be the primary force driving down birth rates -- think TV, not government decrees. In Brazil, television was introduced sequentially province by province, and in each new region the boob tube reached, birth rates plummeted soon after. (Discuss among yourselves whether this was because of what's on Brazilian television -- mostly soap operas depicting rich people living the high life -- or simply because a television was now on at night in many more bedrooms.)
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