Friday, November 11, 2011

Ted C. Fishman: "Shock of Gray": the sudden challenges of an aging world

Author: Ted C. Fishman

Title: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

Publication: New York: Scribner, 2010.  ISBN 978-1-4165-5102-7, 401 pages, hardcover, indexed, ten chapters with Introduction; also, poem “You Are Old, Father William” by Lewis Carroll, from “Alice in Wonderland”

Amazon link

In the Introduction, on p. 17, the author makes a blunt statement, that summarizes it all: “An aging world is an increasingly dependent world. It will demand that a growing portion of the population devote their lives to the growing share of people who need care.”

An then, on p. 309, in Chapter 9, on China, he mentions that today China’s law allows parents to sue their adult kids for “alimony”, and then in a footnote discusses Singapore’s filial responsibility laws in some detail.  Later he discusses the practice of younger adult workers sending money to parents, comment in most non-western cultures (particularly when they emigrate).  Curiously, he never mentions that in the United States, about 28 states have such laws (rarely enforced, although state budget crises could change that).
Fishman’s book has blocks of comparison. He starts out with a chapter on senior life in Sarasota, FL.  Later, he has a mirror chapter on Rockford, IL.    In that chapter, he latter  discusses the growing and heavily franchised home health care industry, and the tricky problems that come up when clients practice racial discrimination.

He also has separate chapters on Japan and China.  Both countries have dealt with, in different ways, Asian traditions of family solidarity, bending them as necessary for economic (and in China, political) necessity.  Japan has offered 50 year mortgages to encourage extended families to stay together but then has to contemplate taxing adult children who don’t leave home to start families of their own. China, during Maoism, wanted large but socially weak families.  The one-child policy in 1979 would complicated everything, meaning fewer children, but eventually fewer old people. But “little emperors” would grow up and work in a get-rich but autocratic culture, and forget that they would have to learn to take care of people.

Fishman also has a couple chapters of the process of aging.  I didn’t realize that cognitive solstice takes place as early as age 27.  After that, while knowledge may increase, the days get shorter (as well as the ability to play speed chess).  People  (and all animals) age – and therefore must reproduce – because of a process in physics called entropy – decay. By around age 30, in most (not all) people, the effects of age, however gradual, can be noticed on visual inspection.  Men may show a widow’s peak, then frankly receding hairlines (not always) and in time even lose hair from the legs.  Everyone shows facial lines as tissue underneath the skins slowly receded.  (Dr. Phil used to call all this “tissue death”.)  Keeping the partners of a marriage “interested” in one another for life requires social support – procreation and the belief that one is passing on the same sense of socialization onto one’s kids.  It doesn’t always work.

The right wing talks about “demographic winter” as part of a murky strategy to restore the psychological imperative of the heterosexual family and “rule of reproduction” for everyone.  It’s also a term aiming at the politics of what is going on in the West:  immigrant (often racial or religious) minorities have most of the children, ultimately threatening a political unraveling of western secular democracy  (see Bruce Bawer, “While Europe Slept”, discussed here July 25, 2011).

The fact is, however, something has really changed:  wealthier populations are living longer, with longer periods at the end of life with marked disability, particularly Alzheimer’s.  At the same time, individualistic values of “personal responsibility” along with rising costs have discouraged wealthier populations from having as many children.  No wonder we will have a Social Security and Medicare crisis here, and that Europe is in trouble now.  Statist welfare programs, in an era of weaker emotional ties within extended families, are not sustainable.  Earlier, less wealthy and more collective societies, had to have more children, to build enough mass to protect a population from external (natural and manmade) dangers.  They relegated the unmarried to staying at home to take care of filial responsibility, but, paradoxically, the elderly usually did not live long once they got sick.  Today, the system has flipped.

Second picture: law school at Penn State.  In 2005, Pennsylvania tried to strengthen its filial responsibility laws.  See my Retirement Blog, July, 2007. 

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