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Friday, July 21, 2017

The Graying of the West


This is a topic that I have touched on in posts a few years ago. It needs a revisit as the demographic urgency has increased yet virtually no country affected by it has taken any meaningful steps to reverse the situation.

Aging has been increasingly evident in many Western nations for some time. Also, it is a long standing even drastic situation in Japan, and a big problem in Russia and China as well. It all starts with ZPG.

ZPG stands for Zero Population Growth. You need fertility rates of approximately 2.1 children per woman to replace each existing generation. As a young person, I never was much concerned with it but now, incredibly, some 60% of the world’s population lives in nations with fertility rates below ZPG.

So what, you may exclaim. This is good. Fewer mouths to feed and fewer people to pollute Mother Earth. One cannot argue with that although it shows a lack of faith in technological advancement. The problem is that since World War II ended in 1945 virtually all Western nations have created some form of social safety net. In the U.S. we have Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In Europe, it is often referred to as retirement schemes and universal health care. All good in many people’s eyes but can the West continue to pay for it?

The European Commission published a paper a few years ago, that made even an experienced demographer such as I reel. By 2060, the German population will drop by a fifth and people of working age will plummet from approximately 52 million now to 36 million! Some dismiss problems with a smaller workforce saying that increased productivity will bail us all out. It will certainly help but caring for the massive increase in the elderly will put tremendous new pressure on the finances of even the most solvent governments (yes, there are a few left)!

To be blunt, what is going is a generational Ponzi Scheme of epic proportions. It is not brain surgery--it is simply demographics and plain arithmetic. As life expectancy increases and fertility declines, those younger people who are still working will have to pay a great deal more to take of the elderly in many, many nations.  Many will have to depend on immigrants to assist the elderly. Looking ahead a decade or two, these entitlements for the elderly will likely suffocate even the most robust economies.

Keep an eye on Spain and Italy. Both countries have had economic challenges for some time but as the societies continue to get older, the strain on their “provider state” will get intense. In the US, we have SOME breathing room. Social Security will stay solvent until 2034. Medicare/Medicaid is anyone’s guess as both Republicans and Democrats argue over health care. What both sides fail to address is the rising cost of healthcare. How will an aging population pay for it?

China is really facing a ticking bomb. Candid Chinese analysts refer to their “4:2:1” problem. Mao’s limit of one child per family in many provinces decades ago has created a situation where an adult child is asked to care for both parents and sometimes four grandparents. The World Health Organization projects that China will likely have more patients suffering from some form of dementia than the rest of the world combined by the year 2040. Think about it. It is frightening.

The nations of the world need to shift gears. Here at home we need to means test Social Security and raise the age for distributions or the system could collapse. Also, some health care proposal has to be crafted that whittles down the Medicaid burden and does not try to place it on the backs of the poor who simply cannot pay for it. Will we react in time?

Separately, a few words about senior marketing. Looking around the world, many countries seem to be doing a better job hitting the 60+ demographic than we do. In Canada, I have seen commercials aimed at the mature touting private label goods in supermarkets. Seniors are often financially challenged and are more careful shoppers, than younger adults. Also, they have more time. In Singapore, a flagship company, Singapore Telecom, known as Singtel, ran a highly imaginative campaign called Project Silverline a few years ago. The telecom behemoth asked for contributions of old iPhones and then retrofitted them by adding apps designed with senior users in mind. Very attractive plans were set up for seniors who might be on a tight budget. I would be interested in a similar plan at some point and will likely love a phone with larger keys as I get increasingly far sighted with each passing year.

In the U.S, many products aimed at seniors are almost comical. A few years ago, I was looking for CNBC and hit the wrong digits on my remote. Up popped The Andy Griffith Show. I watched for a few moments and realized it was my favorite episode ever, “Barney runs for sheriff.” For 20 minutes I was back to 55 years ago and laughed heartily at Don Knotts and Griffith. The commercial breaks were another story. Clearly, the DRTV advertisers realized that the viewership was old. A two minute spot appeared for the questionable reverse mortgages with a spokesperson actor whom I had not seen in years. Hemorrhoid remedies and denture adhesives followed finished by a spot for an alert bracelet for the elderly living alone. So, we seem to have a need for more nuanced marketing to the growing legions of the elderly in America. Some upscale players for financial institutions and luxury vacations do a nice job but few others are adequate.

So, the West has some challenges ahead and, while few will dispute the facts that I have laid out, even fewer feel moved to do something about it. Someone told me not to concern myself with it as “you will be dead before this really kicks in and, meanwhile, you get all the benefits.” Maybe so, but what kind of answer is that? If you have children or grandchildren, you have to care about the demographic cliff.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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