For the first time in history, the world will soon be home to more people over fifty than under seventeen. Journalist Ted Fishman explores the complex economic, political, and cultural ramifications of the world’s aging population. He reports from three continents and weaves together the huge, interconnected effects of global aging.


  • Ted Fishman Journalist and author of "China, Inc."


  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. The world is facing a population bomb. Not long ago, population expert, Paul Ehrlich, made that prediction about the fate of the planet. While his fears of worldwide mass famine did not come to pass, demographers now have a new concern. It's not that the world will have too many people, but actually too few.

  • 11:07:30

    MS. DIANE REHMA new book written by Ted Fishman outlines the economic, political and cultural consequences of the world's aging population. The book is titled, "Shock of Gray" and Ted Fishman joins me in the studio. You are certainly invited to join us as well. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to You can join us on Facebook, you can join us on our website, you can send us a tweet and we'll be happy to hear from you. Good morning, Ted, it's good to see you.

  • 11:08:25

    MR. TED FISHMANGood morning, I'm so glad to be here.

  • 11:08:25

    REHMI must say, the New York Times, Foreign Policy Magazine and your book all concern about the aging population. What's going on? Is everybody looking at the same issue at the same time? How did you first get started on it?

  • 11:08:49

    FISHMANYou know, I got started on it not in a place that made me feel the aging world, but a place that made me feel that I was old in a younger world and that was when I was working on my last book, "China Inc." You know. And when I traveled in China, I would get to these neon wonderlands of youth in China's big cities, you know, and those who've read "China Inc" know that my prose was breathless about these places.

  • 11:09:16

    FISHMANYou know, you see young people on the make, rushing to and fro and you feel like you're in a sea of youth and that's because China has marshaled 150 to 200 million young people to come to its cities. But as soon as you leave the city, you see a vast country of old people. And, you know, I come from a divided city, Chicago, and when you see that there's a big division of population for one reason or another, you start to think that there's some kind of structural discrimination going on. And China is really a country that has ruthlessly separated young from older people.

  • 11:09:53

    REHMAnd they had a deliberate population control in place because they couldn't feed their total population, so they limited the birth of one child per family.

  • 11:10:10

    FISHMANWell, that's a fascinating topic, Diane. You know, I -- that was my impulse when I was reporting on China for this new book. You know, we all thought that the Chinese leadership feared this Malthusian nightmare in which, you know, the population would outrun its ability to feed itself. But if you go back into the documentation on the one child policy plan, food was not the issue. It was the cost of sending these children to school. It was the cost of feeding them in the iron rice bowl.

  • 11:10:39

    FISHMANAnd Deng Xiaoping had looked around the rest of Asia and he saw, oh, they've driven down their birth rates through economic development and then they've had their East Asian miracles. What if we drive down our birth rates first? Will we get a miracle?

  • 11:10:49


  • 11:10:49

    FISHMANAnd that was the genesis of the plan, to deliver China from the cost that was bankrupting the country of social services and to try and stir this miracle and they followed on with that by separating young from old in the new economy.

  • 11:11:00

    REHMSo what's happening to populations across the world? Are other countries' birth rates going down? And what is that what's driving the concern about an older population without a younger group to support it?

  • 11:11:23

    FISHMANWell, that's spot-on and I think what you've just described attacks the misunderstanding about an older world. We all think the world is aging because people are getting older and living longer. That's only part of it. The real dynamic is that families are smaller and bringing fewer young people into the world. So think about any country that you know with a small handful of exceptions in Africa, in particular, and just about everywhere in the world, family size is at least half of what it was a generation ago. And in some places, it's radically smaller. So...

  • 11:11:55

    REHMCertainly even in this country, where you used to see sometimes seven, eight, 10 children, now pretty much, two or max, three and even that's rare.

  • 11:12:08

    FISHMANYou don't need to be a social scientist to see this. Just go to your own Thanksgiving. You know, when you were a kid, there was a kids' table with all kinds of noisy, rowdy people, like me when I was a kid. But now, there's a whole bunch of noisy, rowdy older people, like me, now that I'm not a kid and the kids' table is very, very small.

  • 11:12:26

    REHMSo what's happening? What do you see? What are you most concerned about?

  • 11:12:33

    FISHMANWell, I'm most concerned about the fact that we really haven't had a reckoning with this issue. You know, most of us, when we think about big issues, we think about what drives our thinking on it. We think about the economics, maybe we think about our value system, maybe we think about the climate. But the aging of the world should inform just about everything we're looking at.

  • 11:13:06

    FISHMANAnd, you know, if I had a personal transformation writing this book, it was that I can't leave my house anymore without seeing the inversion of the population at work and working the way schools are financed and the work -- in the way my job fortunes are playing out and it has to be one of the starting points when you think about just about anything, about your family, certainly, about your workplace, which is changing very radically because of the age change in some surprising ways, disenfranchising older people, in some ways wrapping them into the workforce in new sobering terms and about your community and whether it can pay for itself.

  • 11:13:32

    FISHMANAnd even about the geo-political balance of power. These are all age-related issues. We're not seeing them that way yet because we're not used to the shift yet.

  • 11:13:41

    REHMAnd Ted Fishman joins me, he's a journalist. His previous book titled "China Inc," it was a best seller. Here we have "Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival and Nation Against Nation." Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to What you seem most concerned about is that this country, and perhaps other countries as well, have not thought through the aging of the population and it's here. We're right here and now.

  • 11:14:40

    FISHMANAnd it hits you with surprise once you see it, so surprising that it sends millions of people into the streets of Europe. They're aging a little ahead of us. They've come to this sudden realization that they have a problem, that they can't give up on their promises to themselves and -- but they don't have a way to keep them. And, you know, that presages the world for all of us.

  • 11:14:59

    REHMYou know, you talked earlier about the financing of schools. Traditionally, in this country, that has been done by the property owners, who were the older people, the established people and now that's going to be a problem.

  • 11:15:18

    FISHMANIt will be a problem. The school financing landscape of the United States is incredibly diverse, but it sheds some interesting light on what an aging population will do for younger people in this society. So if you live in a strong, middle class, upper class community where part of the value of your house is dependent on the quality of the schools and as an older person, the value of your house is the bulk of your savings, you will support good schools to keep the value of your house up.

  • 11:15:51

    FISHMANBut if you live in a place that's bigger and the financing is more diverse and more spread out and the local schools don't get their money directly from you, the homeowner, you will support young people far less and you can see that in the electoral patterns around the United States.

  • 11:16:07

    REHMAnd that makes one worry about the education of the country as a whole.

  • 11:16:12

    FISHMANOh, absolutely. You find in the bigger jurisdictions that's where the most troubled schools are.

  • 11:16:19

    REHMYou know, it would seem that on the one hand you have the aging of the population as something to be celebrated through medical science, through all kinds of achievements. We've managed to live longer, to live healthier longer, but what's that doing for the younger people and the job market?

  • 11:16:45

    FISHMANWell, it's interesting. There's a global way to look at that and a local way to look at it. There's a lot of joy in the book and part of the joy is exactly what you're talking about. When family size gets smaller, people focus on the children in the family. The grandparents do, the parents do and they pump resources into fewer children and they can do a great job with those children. So in poor countries that are on their way up, it means better diets, better places to live, lots of schools. That will raise the fate of their nations.

  • 11:17:17

    FISHMANIn our country, you know, it's a mixed story. Of course, for people of means, education is more expensive than ever. College education is expensive, we're having a de facto privatization of our school system because parents can afford it 'cause they only have one or two children. And those children do very, very well. But in places that don't have that system, you have the needs of the older population. In a big city, for example, their needs for jobs, their needs for social services competing with the school needs and the job placement of younger people.

  • 11:17:54

    REHMAnd of course social security, that huge program that was established during the New Deal is certainly now one of the issues that's coming into play not only for older people, but for younger people who are saying to themselves, is that program going to be there when I get there? Am I paying into a system that's not going to do me any good at all? Ted Fishman is with me. We're talking about his new book "Shock of Gray," all about the aging of the world's population. We'll take just a short break. When we come back, your calls and more.

  • 11:20:04

    REHMAnd here is an opposing view from Barbie in Rochester, N.Y. to Ted Fishman on his brand-new book "Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population." She says, "Living on a planet drowning in human pollution, I cannot begin to fathom how anyone could conclude that smaller families or a smaller human population could be a bad thing." Ted Fishman.

  • 11:20:40

    FISHMANNo. I don't think that's a opposing viewpoint. You know, I think there is so much good that comes out of smaller families. As we mentioned, it's -- it gives families a chance to really give those fewer children a much better footing for the rest of their lives. And you can see this even in China, where a Chinese family, no matter how poor they are, will make any effort they can to make sure the one child that they're allowed on the one-child policy does as well as they possibly can, but if they still have the idea of the hero mother of ten kids, then few of those children would have any chance at all.

  • 11:21:15

    REHMBut here's another thought from Joseph in Sterling Heights, Mich. who says, "The recession has produced a large cohort of older unemployed workers, like myself. The port in the storm that awaits us is the availability of Social Security as early as age 62. Unfortunately, there is new discussion about raising that retirement age. How can we do this in the face of discrimination against older workers made obvious in this recession?"

  • 11:21:58

    FISHMANYes. This is a political reality the U.S. faces and virtually every developed country faces. In order to keep the system solvent for everyone, we need a way to do it and, of course, the way that's proposed most often is to raise the initiation age for regular Social Security. But just as an illustration of how we're not thinking deeply enough about this, you know, if you raise the age at which people can start Social Security and you still adjusted actuarially so that people get more when they're older, you don't get any fiscal relief. And this is something voters latch onto without the full understanding and politicians don't present it in the way they should. You know, if I achieve one thing with the book, it's to get us all to be thinking about the basics of how this change in population works.

  • 11:22:49

    REHMWell, and going back to the first e-mailer about the crowding and the pollution that human beings have created, your -- one of the points you make is that when there are too few young people supporting that older population, you've really got a problem.

  • 11:23:16

    FISHMANYeah, you know, everyone knows that China has a one-child policy, but, you know, the other way to say it and I say it in the book is it's really the sixth adult policy (laugh) 'cause you have six adults for one child. And, you know, that poor child who has all the expectations that he's going to be the social security for those six adults. And I shouldn't say this is just China. You know, this is something that American parents think about, too. If Social Security is threatened, will their children have enough resources and enough skills to support the family?

  • 11:23:47

    FISHMANAnd, you know, I would say that there's another lurking danger in the background of this situation, which is how does it reconfigure the older worker in America? If the young person has to support the whole family, does that push the older population into caregiving roles for the younger members of the family?

  • 11:24:08

    REHMInteresting. As opposed to the way it is now, which is that younger people are caring for older people.

  • 11:24:17

    FISHMANWell, older people are already being -- as one of the questions indicated, older people are already being pushed into reduced circumstances in the workforce where they are no longer the salaried employees they were, but they're contingent employees, temp employees, contract employees, entrepreneurs by necessity because they have to be because they can't get their full salary that they once did even before retirement. So when an older person has to decide, should I make my child pay for childcare for my grandchildren or should I step out of my low-wage job, step into a caregiving job and then allow my son or daughter to work 50, 60 hours a week so that he can support all of us?

  • 11:24:56

    REHMSo how are the changing demographics, for example, affecting industries here in this country? What industries are left?

  • 11:25:09

    FISHMANYeah, well, one of the undergirding arguments of "Shock of Gray" is that the aging of the world really is a strong propellant of globalization. Because when you go to a developing country and you see hoards of young people in a factory -- and I've been to Chinese factories where there are 10, 20,000 people all under 25. We all know that Foxcom, the company that makes iPads and other things is a giant company. Next year, it'll have 1.3 million employees virtually all under 25, which means that the rest of the world has gone shopping to these companies. Not just for what they can make, but for the young workforce unburdened by pensions and benefits that keeps the economic ecology in those places low.

  • 11:25:54

    FISHMANAnd at the very same time, the effective retirement age at which people leave their salaried benefit full-time jobs is going down in Europe and going down in the United States and turning those older workers into less valuable workers that have to compete not only with young people in the United States, but also young unpensioned unbenefited workers all around the world.

  • 11:26:17

    REHMOne caller has said, "Why is the older population such a shock? Shouldn't we have known?"

  • 11:26:27

    FISHMANYou know, there -- Of course. Of course we should've know, but how many people even know about their own age -- their own old age when they're young? You know, that's something we don't love to think about.

  • 11:26:36

    REHMWe don't think about it, we don't want to think about it. We've pushed it to the side, but now you've got, as you point out in the subtitle of your book, "Worker Against Boss." You've got older workers working for younger bosses.

  • 11:26:58

    FISHMANOh, my goodness, Diane. You know, one of the places I report the book is in Sarasota, Fla. which is a wonderland for older people. People have all kinds of activities to do there, they're engaged in volunteerism, the cultural life is rich, but you go into a Subway sandwich shop and you see all of these older people who you think are the shop's owners making sandwiches, then out comes a young immigrant (laugh). And maybe the young immigrant is the one you're accustomed to seeing as the employee, but now they're the boss because the older people, even in Sarasota, which is a high-income place, are now often reduced to working for minimum wage jobs.

  • 11:27:31

    REHMBecause they've lost their own income through poor investments or mortgage problems or something of that sort.

  • 11:27:42

    FISHMANYeah, lots of things that are bad decisions, lots of things that are just dumb luck, lots of things that are the product of a bulging aging population, which makes them compete against one another for resources.

  • 11:27:52

    REHMHow do you see this shock of gray creating globalization in the extreme?

  • 11:28:02

    FISHMANIt works in two directions. The first is the one that I've just described in which in the developing countries -- I mean, in the developed countries, the most expensive workers are your full-salaried older workers. They cost the most to pay because their salaries have gone up over time. Usually because they've acquired knowledge of their companies over time and they deserve more pay. They cost the most to insure, so they make the insurance for all your employees more expensive. They have their own care needs for their older parents, so sometimes they have to leave the work.

  • 11:28:37

    FISHMANAnd at the same time this is happening, you know, along comes hundreds of millions of new workers into the global workforce that are available without any of this baggage. And so in Europe, you see the effective retirement age going down, even while the official retirement ages go up. In the United States, you see pressure towards early exit from the workforce for late career workers. And you see hundreds of millions of new workers being taken on if they are younger and unburdened. But at the very same time, in these countries where the transformation is happening because jobs and capital are moving there, they're creating an aging dynamic of their own because as they change, they urbanize.

  • 11:29:20

    FISHMANAnd when people urbanize, they provide more opportunities for women, women can have higher aspirations and see them, they can have a place in the workforce, they can be educated, their fertility window closes because they spend time educating themselves, because they spend time growing on the job. They may want three or more children. They can't get to more than two. When they have two children, the whole family focuses on those two children. Those children become better workers. They will have fewer children over the long run and the aging dynamic roles around the world rinse and repeat.

  • 11:29:53

    REHMTed Fishman, his new book is titled "Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Tim in Dallas, Texas. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:30:15

    TIMThank you. I'm really struck by this idea of the fear that a lot of people have with the idea of having, you know, multigenerational representation in households. Most of my friends who live elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia and in Europe, the idea of bringing the elderly, the grandfathers, the fathers and mothers back into the home is very traditional and they've been doing it for years and years. Whereas, it seems like obviously in this country and I'll go out on a limb and say that this is, in my opinion, a particularly white kind of idea, that our elderly have become disposable so that we can put them in homes, that we don't really have to deal with them.

  • 11:30:59

    TIMAnd so I guess my question is, are we moving toward, you know, this idea of having this multigenerational household again as a result of choices that we've made or do you think maybe it's because this idea was the right one all along (unintelligible) ?

  • 11:31:16

    REHM(laugh) Good question.

  • 11:31:18

    FISHMANYeah, that's a wonderful question. You know, I think the idea of filial loyalty in multigenerational households that we have of other countries is very often a myth. You know, a lot of these values grew up when people only lived to be 35 (laugh) so you didn't have to have Granny in the house 'cause she just wasn't there. And what I've seen in Asian economies and it's true in Japan, it's true in Korea, it's true in China and places that are aging ahead of us, is that when young people can put distance between themselves and their parents, often they lose this strong filial bond that they think is their tradition.

  • 11:31:57

    FISHMANAnd then, when the older people move back into the house to take care of grandchildren, for example, their moving is a way to insinuate themselves back into the family so that they can get support when they're older by providing an economic service to the family. So, you know, I had one professor say, you know, that it's an idea right now in China that grandparents have always taken care of grandchildren, but it's a kind of making virtue of necessity because historically in China, it was the mothers who took care of their parents and who took care of their children and the grandparents didn't play that role. It's just a readjustment for the economy.

  • 11:32:38

    REHMAnd, of course, we here in this country face that same kind of sandwich situation. Ted Fishman, his new book is titled "Shock of Gray." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll go back to the phones now to Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Theo.

  • 11:33:05

    THEOGood morning. How are you today?

  • 11:33:06

    REHMFine, thanks. Go right ahead, sir.

  • 11:33:09

    THEOThank you. I have a two-part question. I'll speak really quick. It's my understanding that it was the West and Japan that was having the graying problem. Areas like Africa and the Middle East and India and areas like Bangladesh were actually having the population boom. And two, has he done any research on the chronic problem of low birth rates in some European countries like Spain and Italy and Germany and the consequences for those countries?

  • 11:33:39

    REHMOkay. Thanks for calling.

  • 11:33:41

    FISHMANTheo, those are great questions. You're right, the West and Japan, particularly southern Europe and Japan, are far ahead on that kind of demographic aging of the rest of the world. But no country, no area of the world is immune and it's because of the shrinking family size. That doesn't mean there aren't much younger countries in the world today, because there are youth bulges. But these youth bulges will pass through time and eventually become bulges in the aging population and their younger populations will be smaller because those youth bulges that exist right now will be having fewer children and that's already happening.

  • 11:34:13

    REHMWhat about Africa?

  • 11:34:15

    FISHMANAfrica, too, is shrinking in terms of family size.

  • 11:34:19

    REHMAgain education...

  • 11:34:22

    FISHMANAnd urbanization.

  • 11:34:23

    REHM...and urbanization.

  • 11:34:24

    FISHMANAnd urbanization. So, you know, the U.N. projects that about 80 percent of the world will be urbanized before the end of the century and virtually all of that new urbanization will be in the developing world, including large parts of it in sub-Saharan Africa.

  • 11:34:35

    REHMSo what do you see happening here in terms of generational conflict because of this sort of lopsided population growth?

  • 11:34:50

    FISHMANWell, I believe it really depends on whether we're willing to address these issues at the top of our intelligence. This is a new world and it has to be negotiated. So if we do nothing and we allow the current systems to play out, there will be enormous conflict for resources. We will have to decide whether we pour everything into the support of older populations because we have promised that and do it in the old ways in which we were and then short (word?) everything else, schools, infrastructure, whatever or will we renegotiate it so that we share the burdens across generations?

  • 11:35:25

    FISHMANAnd one way that we do this is by allowing older people to be at their peak value at ages in which we are now pushing them out of the workforce or reducing their work. Will they have lifetime training for themselves? Will they not only save for their children's education, but for their own education over their lifetimes? And if you, when you reach 65 -- or 62 or 65 are at your peak knowledge and peak abilities, nobody's gonna want to push you out. They may want to pay you more.

  • 11:35:56

    REHMDo you really think that's going to happen?

  • 11:35:59

    FISHMANIt can happen in an economy that moves towards a service economy, Diane. Because in a service economy, knowledge acquired over time is what's valuable. In a manufacturing economy, it is very, very tough. And this is why older people have been bearing the brunt of globalization the most because when industrial jobs move, the skills that they've been frozen with over time can be so easily challenged.

  • 11:36:23


  • 11:36:23

    FISHMANNow, one of the big dangers is that employers are very, very skillful now at creating flexible organizations, so that even ingrained skills that are accrued over time could be transferred overseas because they're very good at transferring knowledge, too. So this puts a especially strong challenge on those of us who are seeing this dynamic unfold in our families, to make sure that we are creative, informed and well educated.

  • 11:36:50

    REHMDo you see some countries actually paying families to have children?

  • 11:36:57

    FISHMANSure. It's not terribly successful. It bumps it up a little bit. You can't get to the five or six kids through a payment, but you can encourage people to go from two to three. France and Denmark have had some successful programs like this. Other countries have failed miserably, including the former Soviet states.

  • 11:37:14

    REHMAnd they pay them by encouraging them to not only have a third child, but supporting them with payments and the like.

  • 11:37:24

    FISHMANYeah, it can be as basic as cash for children.

  • 11:37:28

    REHM"Shock of Gray" is the title of Ted Fishman's new book. We'll take just a short break. When we come back, more of your comments. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd here is a wonderful e-mail from Constance for Ted Fishman, my guest today, whose new book with a globe on the cover is titled, "Shock of Gray." The lower part of the globe is in color, the top of the globe is in gray. She says, "I'm tired of hearing about what a burden older people are if they don't work and how they're taking jobs away from younger workers if they do work. The problem isn't older workers, it's lack of jobs and prejudice against the old. Your author seems to want us all to die young."

  • 11:40:53

    FISHMANOh, Constance, ouch. I do want you to die young, at a hundred.

  • 11:40:59

    REHMYeah, that's good. That's good. We haven't even defined what older age is.

  • 11:41:06

    FISHMANBecause it's not easy. You know, sometimes it's defined for you and sometimes it's defined by you and the -- and age itself is just a chronological marker. It doesn't say whether you're older or not. In the United States, people tend to think they're about 15 years younger than they really are and bravo for that. In Asia, you can ask somebody 50 whether they're old or not and in some countries, they'll say, "Yes, I am." And it's a good thing because they think of themselves as 10 years older because they wanna be. And in other places in China where you can retire -- be forced to retire as early as 45, you can ask a 50-year-old whether they're older and they say, "Yes, I am and I don't like it a bit."

  • 11:41:44

    FISHMANBut, you know, I don't think we should lose sight of the real good news and there is lots of good news in "Shock of Gray" where we're harking on the problems which are real. But the good news is that all of the brilliance of humanity has been marshaled into allowing us to live longer and healthier. This is the one good that mankind has wanted forever and good gracious, we've got it now. Now it's our challenge to figure out how are we going to live with the culture and the society that this miracle has delivered.

  • 11:42:17

    REHMAnd Judy in Canterbury, N.H. says, "Seems to me that the graying of the U.S. population is a perfect reason to ease restrictions on immigration from countries with many younger workers. Latin America, for example, has many such workers."

  • 11:42:40

    FISHMANYes, a graying population does require a new group of people to fill in the workplace and sometimes those people fill in the workplace caring for that graying population. So in the United States, as I report in the book, some of the most moving moments for me were going to the homes of older people who may not have left their neighborhoods very often, had hardcore prejudices that they harbored their whole life and yet they find somebody with a different skin tone or a different accent taking care of them, holding their hand, talking about their family at home.

  • 11:43:12

    FISHMANAnd you get a kind of new miraculous world understanding because the world is aging. You know, that's separate than filling in the vast numbers of missing people in your workforce, but that happens, too. One of the countries I focus on a lot is Spain. Spain went from being one of the youngest countries in Europe -- really the country that sent workers all over Europe to work because it had a surplus -- to being one of the most rapidly aging. And it had zero immigrants in 2000, virtually none, but 10 years later, is has the highest proportion of immigrants of any country in Europe.

  • 11:43:44

    REHMFrom where?

  • 11:43:45

    FISHMANThey come from two places, Diane. They come from North Africa and they come from South America. Very few from Central America, interestingly enough. But they -- those immigrants come in big numbers. In Barcelona, there's around 500,000 to 600,000 Ecuadorians. So many, in fact, that the out migration from Ecuador has changed the demographic of that country.

  • 11:44:07

    REHMOh, my.

  • 11:44:08

    FISHMANSo people of 18 to 35 have left Ecuador in huge numbers one...

  • 11:44:12

    REHMTo care for the elderly?

  • 11:44:15


  • 11:44:16

    REHMIn Barcelona.

  • 11:44:17

    FISHMANAnd to care for the elderly in Barcelona and, interestingly enough, the other place that they go is the northeastern United States. Really, just two places Ecuadorians go to. So this is a political issue at the presidential level in Ecuador. There is a giant national program called The Welcome Home Program because the exodus of the young people in a young country to serve the older people in an aging country has created an older country out of the younger country.

  • 11:44:43

    REHMIsn't that interesting. Let's go to Boston, Mass. I think Allison wants to talk about this very issue. Good morning, Allison.

  • 11:44:54

    ALLISONHi, good morning. I was just taking note when you were talking about the graying of America and competing for available jobs with young people. I guess I didn't quite understand. If you could explain a little bit about -- I just assumed that if there were less children, we wouldn't wanna encourage more children in families to balance the population because then wouldn't there be more jobs for the elderly? And then wouldn't there be more jobs for the young in terms of services for the elderly?

  • 11:45:26

    FISHMANThat's a good question and it allows us to clarify some misunderstandings when you look at the numbers. So an older population that's getting older doesn't mean necessarily the population is shrinking yet. Children are still being added to the population, a large group in the population is still having children, so you might have increasing numbers of young people, but they aren't increasing in the proportion that the older population is increasing. So pick the median age of the United States. Right now, it's around 36. The groups that are older than 36 are growing proportionately larger to the whole population than the groups that are younger, but both are growing.

  • 11:46:05

    FISHMANNow, here's what's happened in the jobs situation, which is that as older people find that they need to work longer, you know, just a few years ago, older people were saying they were going to retire before mandatory retirement now they say they're going to work after. The working conditions for them have changed and they are working in far larger numbers than they ever have before both because there are more older people and because a larger percentage of older people are working. But they compete against one another in the workforce because the baby boom generation is a huge population and when you compete with lots of other workers, you drive you own wages down.

  • 11:46:43

    FISHMANAnd many of them are also underwritten by some pension or some Social Security, so they can afford to work for less. But when you hire a young person, they're not undergirded by a pension or Social Security, they need -- actually need to live on what they're making. So if you're an employer looking for workers, you have a choice. Do you get somebody who's been seasoned by the workforce, maybe have -- has worked for you before and is tested and has some set of skills but will work for a low wage or do you take on a new person at a low wage they'll be grouchy about, will require lots of training and you don't know whether they're going to quit in the next 10 years and this is why the older workers are being pitted against the younger workers now.

  • 11:47:21

    REHMThanks for calling, Allison. The other ultimate question is do you see the population of the world simply dying out of old age?

  • 11:47:36

    FISHMANI don't, Diane, thank goodness. We're gonna add about 2 billion people before the world population goes into reverse and those 2 billion people will be entering families that are smaller, but they'll still be adding to the world's population. So right now, we have an inversion of the world's population dynamic where the older groups are growing far faster than the younger groups, but eventually, not in our lifetimes, but eventually, the world population graph won't look like a triangle that's right side up or a triangle that's upside down. It will look like a rectangle where you have more even distribution across the ages because our population growth will be according to the size of families and if it's close to two children per family, then you'll get equal distribution across the generations.

  • 11:48:21

    REHMBut right now it's less than two per family.

  • 11:48:25

    FISHMANYes. Right now it is less -- in the developed world, it's less and...

  • 11:48:30

    REHMNot one...

  • 11:48:30

    FISHMAN...globally it's very close.

  • 11:48:31

    REHMI see. I see. All right. To Herman in Colleyville, Texas. You're on the air.

  • 11:48:41

    HERMANYes, ma'am. I have a question for Ted about his book. Do you reference anything in your book regarding the time frame of mid-'60s and prior to when we all heard how great and Social Security never, never run out of money and then during that mid-'60s, our government converted it to a general fund and used it. And now all we hear is it's not sustainable.

  • 11:49:12

    FISHMANI do talk about that a little bit. You know, this is a global book and it discusses a global dynamic, so I didn't get into the minutia of the particular Social Security schemes in every country. I'm not too fearful about Social Security disappearing in our country. I do think there are simple fixes that we can take and those are discussed. One thing I do discuss in the book, though, is how important Social Security is as the wall between so many older Americans in poverty.

  • 11:49:44

    FISHMANAbout half of Americans retire with nothing but Social Security to live on and this has made a huge difference and I think it's been discussed on the show before that it is really the wall between pauperization of older people and sustainability in your own house. And I don't think we're going to wish that away. And we'll do whatever we can as a country to make sure that happens.

  • 11:50:09

    REHMTed Fishman, his new book is titled, "Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population" and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Little Rock, Ark. Good morning, Sheri.

  • 11:50:30

    SHERIGood morning. My comment is that I am in the sandwich group and we do have my mother-in-law living in the home with us and we're surrounded by our kids and our grandchildren. My husband's 60, I'm 57, we're both still working full-time. There are a lot of things we could be doing to help the family -- nurture the family if we weren't working full-time, but we have to work for insurance. So has there been any thought to maybe providing -- maybe doing a little bubble for the baby boomers providing insurance, Medicare, at an earlier age. A lot of my friends are in the same boat. They just cannot afford to be without health insurance, can't pay for it on their own. So has there been any thought to providing just insurance at an earlier age so some of us could leave the full-time workforce and open up those jobs?

  • 11:51:19

    FISHMANIt's a good question. It really gets to one of the big issues of an older workforce that wants to work and some of them want to work because -- part-time and -- or full-time work is exactly what they want to express themselves and others work because they need the money, especially for insurance. But when you say has there been any talk to providing it, I guess the question is who do you have in mind as the provider? Is that the government, which I'm assuming is your question?

  • 11:51:44


  • 11:51:44

    FISHMANYes, of course, there's been -- there has been thought of that and that's wrapped into the single payer health proposals. And, you know, those are very important to think about in terms of the aging dynamic, too. And it was -- it did not enter into the healthcare debate when we were in it. But other countries have a competitive position against the United States because the government is the universal insurer, whereas we expect our workers and our companies to provide their own insurance and it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. So I think, you know, that's one way to attack the issue and maybe get to the goals that you want.

  • 11:52:19

    REHMSheri, thanks for calling. Here's an interesting e-mail from Roxanne in Chevy Chase, Md. She says, "I wonder if all the focus on educating our children for a future of technology jobs in that we may be missing a huge need and opportunity to educate them for jobs we'll really need to fill human caretakers. As I watch my children develop social relationships via the internet instead of face-to-face. I wonder who will possess the humanity and capacity for face-to-face human interaction required to care for human beings as they age."

  • 11:53:13

    FISHMANWell, that's a profound question and I think -- I think I'll just let that rest as a statement because I'm moved by it.

  • 11:53:19

    REHMI think it is a profound statement and it reminds us that there is so much more in the world than simply technology. We'll take a caller in Arlington, Texas. Good morning, Shirley.

  • 11:53:38

    SHIRLEYGood morning, Diane. I have a suggestion to help keep older people in the workforce a little longer. I work for a company that has allowed me to work reduced hours and maybe -- well, right now I'm working 60 percent and I still can -- have access to my health benefits and that would help -- it's just an example of how we can keep people off of Medicare, which I think is in more of a precarious situation than Social Security right now. And I've always felt that it was just wrong headed for people who retire and start drawing their Social Security to have to pay taxes on it.

  • 11:54:22

    FISHMANYeah, I'm glad to hear that you have an employer who's enlightened that way and I would bet that you're an employee who's quite valuable to them. You may not work -- I'm just guessing here, being a little fortune teller, but you may not work in an industry where you're competitors are very nimble globally in outsourcing jobs and moving things around and moving your function somewhere else.

  • 11:54:45

    REHMBut, you know, I think that does make a lot of sense for employers if they can afford to continue to pay health insurance once a long-term employee has retired.

  • 11:55:01

    FISHMANI agree.

  • 11:55:02

    REHMThat makes a huge difference.

  • 11:55:04

    FISHMANI agree. Sometimes it's cultural. You know, one of the companies I visited on my travels in the book was a Danish company doing business in the United States and they're Danish, so they'd make all kinds of accommodations to their older workers for family care and everything. It's part of their culture. They can't live with it any other way.

  • 11:55:18

    REHMNow, for you, what's the biggest worry you have about this aging global population?

  • 11:55:28

    FISHMANMy biggest worry, Diane, is -- I would say it's on two tracks. It's personal because I was changed by doing the book and then there's a policy worry I have. My biggest worry on the bigger global scale is the redefinition of what a late career worker is. Will a late career worker be allowed to finish his or her career at their full capacity for their full value or will they be reduced in an economy that has a huge interest in cutting back on their full benefits, their full salary and redefining them as part-timers and contract workers and so on.

  • 11:56:05

    FISHMANThis is the landscape for older workers in the countries that are already older than us and it's quite stark. On a personal level, I want my children to enter a world in which they will be as capable as they possibly can. You know, I face a growing older population, but a young person who's born today or all the way through college, when they get to be 60 or 65, their group will be even a bigger percentage of the global population than my group is. And, you know, the aging of the world is -- should -- ought to be a far bigger concern, challenge, opportunity for the younger people than it is for even those entering their late career stages right now.

  • 11:56:46

    REHMTed Fishman and the book we've been talking about is titled "Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population." I want to thank you so much for being here.

  • 11:57:00

    FISHMANMy pleasure. I've enjoyed it enormously.

  • 11:57:02

    REHMThank you. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:57:06

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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