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LTC Bullet:

Are We Overselling Aging Demographics?

Thursday June 22, 2000


Shortly after we published Center for LTC Financing President Stephen Moses' speech "Pigs, Pythons and Politics: How to Survive the Aging of the Baby Boom" (see for a copy), we heard from Dr. Gloria M. Gutman, Ph.D, Professor and Director of the Gerontology Research Centre, Diploma and Masters Program at the Simon Fraser University at Harbour Centre in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

Dr. Gutman's note said: "I would like to draw your attention to a new book entitled 'The Overselling of Population Aging: Apocalyptic Demography, Intergenerational Challenges and Social Policy.' Editors: Ellen M. Gee and Gloria M. Gutman, Oxford University Press, ISBN -019-541465-9. It counters a number of the myths that are being perpetuated about the impact of population aging."

We responded by requesting a review copy of her anthology, which Dr. Gutman graciously provided. Anyone interested in aging demographics, tomorrow's "geriatric" boomers, their baby-bust progeny, or the future of social welfare and private insurance should get a copy and ponder its arguments.

You'd be wise, however, to read in tandem the two- year Canadian best seller that Gutman's "OverSelling" debunks: David K. Foot's, "Boom, Bust, & Echo: How to Profit From the Coming Demographic Shift," Macfarlane, Walter & Ross, Toronto, 1996. Better yet, pick up a copy of the U.S. equivalent, Harry S. Dent's, "The Roaring 2000's: Building the Wealth and Lifestyle You Desire in the Greatest Boom in History," Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998. For context and background, former Commerce Secretary Peter G. Peterson's two books are indispensable: "Gray Dawn: How the Coming Age Wave Will Transform America and the World," Random House, New York, 1999 and "Will America Grow Up Before It Grows Old?," Random House, New York, 1996. Finally, Ken Dychtwald's best sellers--"Age Wave" and his latest "Age Power"--are great introductions to the dynamics of demography.

Here's a taste of Gutman and Gee's critique of "Apocalyptic Demography" followed by our editorial comment:

"A number of terms have surfaced--apocalyptic demography, voodoo demography, and alarmist demography-- to refer to an increasingly held view that demographic factors determine human affairs. While demography does influence the social environment, it does not determine it--this is what the 'holy writ' of apocalyptic demography fails to understand. We use the term 'holy writ' advisedly because apocalyptic demography has an ideological hue. For many, it is accepted fact that population aging has negative consequences for society and for intergenerational relations, i.e., that increasing numbers and proportions of elderly translate into the need for major cuts in social policies and programs, and that generational tensions are bound to escalate." ("Introduction," Gee and Gutman, p. 1)

"Population aging is regularly portrayed as a major obstacle to the solvency of the welfare state. One of the main targets of the apocalyptic discourse has been the impact of population aging on the health-care system.. A more complete picture would take into account future trends in economic productivity. An annual growth rate of 1.5 per cent would eliminate any negative impact that an increase in public costs related to hospital morbidity would have on the 'financial burden' of the working-age population." (Chapter 2, "The Impact of Population Aging and Hospital Days," Yves Carriere, pps. 39-40, 41)

"Apocalyptic thinking about.changes in families has focused mainly on caregiving--either the increased likelihood that middle-aged adults will be faced with an older parent who requires care or the increased likelihood that older people who need care will not have family to whom to turn.. In examining three of these assumptions--that most adult children are swamped by the need to help parents, that the sandwich generation is a common predicament, and that women's employment is having a profound impact on care provision--we can see they have been oversold." (Chapter 3, "Aging Families," Carolyn J. Rosenthal, pps. 45, 60)

"At their most extreme, the prophets of demographic doom are like Chicken Little--predicting, on the basis of a real but single factor, like an acorn hitting one's head, that the sky is falling or soon will be, rushing off to warn the King, and along the way whipping others into a state of hysteria. Population aging, because it is perceived as a threat, is used as a political weapon for attacking public social programs, for urging cutbacks in entitlements, and for promoting private-sector methods." (Chapter 6, "Apocalyptic, Opportunistic, and Realistic Demographic Discourse," Michael J. Prince, p. 101)

"Reading the daily news is almost like reading a long doomsday report. Social safety nets, education, and most notably publicly funded health care are argued to be threatened as much by aging populations as by deficits, debt, or the slashing by governments across the land. There is more myth and mysticism than reality to these prophecies." (Chapter 8, "'What Did You Ever Do for Me'," Susan A. McDaniel, p. 129)

Editorial comment:

These quotes give you a good flavor of the essays in "The Overselling of Population Aging." Unfortunately, we have no room here to present, much less critique, the evidence presented in the book for its conclusion that population aging is not such a big problem after all. Definitely, read the book and decide for yourself.

We must observe, however, that the overpowering theme of this volume--that "apocalyptic demographics" is an ideological ploy to ravage social welfare programs for the benefit of greedy capitalists--doth protest just a bit too much. In fact, Gee and Gutman's attack on demographic determinism is every bit as ideologically biased as the books and arguments they and their co-authors attempt to discredit. Consider these examples from three different chapters:

"Available evidence shows that the successful control of health-care expenditures is more likely to occur in centralized health-care fiscal systems." (p. 20) As, for example, in the Soviet Union or in the UK's foundering state-run medical system?

"My position, one that is growing stronger over the years as I continue to learn more about older families, is that the care of the elderly is a public, not a private, issue and that responsibility lies with the state. Within that framework, we may then examine the role families might play if they are able and willing." (p. 61) So, we are responsible for everyone else's parents through tax-funded state programs, but we are only responsible for our own parents after the government programs fail?

"The dismantling of the social safety net at the expense of older Canadians for the purposes of enhancing the profits of investors needs to be exposed and discussed openly by experts and, more importantly, by the public.... [T]he agenda of many, including myself, is to improve pensions, not reduce them." (p. 123) Prolonging actuarially unsound social insurance programs by adding to the tax-drag on companies in the productive economy, which produce the wealth to tax in the first place, will improve pensions?

Although many of the arguments in "Overselling" are dubious and the book's ideological bias in criticizing presumed ideological bias is maybe just a little hypocritical, it is well worth reading if for no other reason than to test one's understanding and hone one's rebuttals. While you're at it, don't miss Robert B. Friedland and Laura Summer's, "Demography is Not Destiny," National Academy on an Aging Society, Washington, D.C., January 1999. That's another interesting and challenging read.