Saturday, February 20, 2010

On what the Abkhaz have to teach us about longevity

The Abkhaz, the titular nation of the quasi-state of Abkhazia in northwestern Georgia, contrary to popular mythology, don't actually live to amazingly long ages. First, here's some background about the Abkhaz, as provided in Georgi Derluguian's "Abkhazia: A Broken Paradise".

Linguistically and anthropologically, the native Abkhazes belong to the North Caucasian group of peoples that also comprises the Adyghs (Adygeis, Circassians, Kabardins) and, more distantly, the Vainakhs (Chechens and Ingushes) and most Daghestanis (Abdushelishvili, Arutyunov and Kaloyev, 1994). To a considerable pride of its native speakers, the Abkhaz language is featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's hardest-sounding tongue. Indeed, it boasts more than sixty consonants to (depending on the dialect) just four, or even one, vowels. The verdict of patriotic Georgian scholars renders Abkhaz merely patois, a backward dialect of the Georgian language. Today, however, comparative linguists consider it proven that the languages of the North Caucasian group are entirely unrelated to any other language family in this part of the world, be it Indo-European, Afrasian (Semitic), Turkic or Kartvelian (a small endemic family that consists of Georgian proper, and the Svan, Mingrelian, and Laz languages) (67).

Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the population of Abkhazia – approximately 100,000; the actual number is difficult to estimate due to the complete absence of any state authority and thus a lack of censuses prior to the 1890s – consisted solely of ethnic native Abkhazes and a few other closely related peoples (such as the Ubykhs) who no longer exist. In 1864, the sweeping push of Russian armies towards the Black Sea provoked among the highlanders a panic that led to mass exodus across the sea into the Ottoman lands: the territories of modern Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and even Kosovo (Ascherson, 1995; Lieven, 1998). This panic of apocalyptic proportions swept the entire expanse from Daghestan and Chechnya in the east Caucasus to the Circassian lands and Abkhazia in the western parts. Since Abkhazia was situated right on the Black Sea coast, the emigration was particularly massive there. At least half or perhaps as many as three quarters of Abkhazes abandoned their native land in successive waves following the series of crushed rebellions between 1864 and 1878.

As Zhenglian et al. noted in their paper "Age validation of Han Chinese centenarians", exaggerations of the numbers of extremely old age are common in any number of states and nations.

Many researchers have indicated that elderly people tend to exaggerate their age. Thoms (1873, 2nd ed. 1878) found that the ages of about 90% of the centenarians reported in the newspapers during the period 1868-72 could not be validated. In the literature, age exaggeration by those claiming to be centenarians was often reported (see, for example, Bowerman, 1939). Among the 1756 reported centenarians in a census taken in Bulgaria at the beginning of this century, only 51 could be verified (Vischer 1945). This problem of overstatement of age by the extremely old has been found in the United States (Myers, 1966; Rosenwaike, 1968), and in the former Soviet Union (Medvedev, 1973, Myers, 1965). A carefully-validated census taken in
Vilcabamba found that all the age claims made by those reporting their age to be over 100 years old, were either incorrect or unsubstantiated. Systematic age exaggeration was found from 70 years old onwards (Mazess & Forman, 1979). This is especially true of extremely old people who come from societies where illiteracy is high, accurate documentation showing date of birth does not exist, and even accurate oral information about birth dates is lacking (Mazess and Forman, 1979). A revaluation of actual ages among a sample of Abkhazians showed that the earlier reports of increased longevity in Abkhazia were erroneous. In fact, the study concluded that extreme old age was no more prevalent in Abkhazia than in the U.S.A. (Palmore, 1984). Age exaggeration was, in fact, very common around 1900 in most of Europe. It is still common today in most other countries of the world, especially in countries with a high proportion of illiteracy (Jeune, 1995, p. 17).

The methodology of the Soviet studies (Other cultures, elder years, Ellen Rhoads Holmes and Lowell Don Holmes) was flawed, with statistics fluctuating wildly from census to census and a near-complete lack of documentation to back up claims. In actual fact, they suggest, only 0.3% of Abkhazians in 1970 may have been older than 90 years, a proportion above the Soviet average and comparable to the American. The acceptance of the myth of Abkhaz longevity might not be surprising, since iIn the book Forever Young: A Cultural History of Longevity by Lucian Boia and Trista Selous, the point is made (155-160) that long lifespans were seen as legitmizing factors for the Soviet system.

Stalinism had set up a complete mythology that overlaid every aspect of real history and ordinary life. Although cracked and losing credibility, this fictiious discourse on the world, supported by the transformist project inherent in Stalinism, survived the Red dictator's death. It's ebb was slow and affected the core ideology only very partially.

Longevity followed. the same pattern. The Caucasians became thinner on the ground, but did not disappear altogether. The year 1974 saw celebrations for the 140th birthday of a lady in that region, who died the following year. [. . .] She was 85 when she joined a collective farm; at 104 she travelled to Moscow for the USSR's first agricultural exhibition; at 128 she was still working. Her speed and skill made her a model for the other workers.

Another source observes that Stalin, just like China's emperor Qin Shi Huangti, wanted to live for a long time and hoped that evidence from his native Caucasus could legitmize his hopes.

Anthropologist Sula Benet's classic 1974 ethnography The Abkhasians: The Long-Living People of the Caucasus is arguably one of the best sources on the Abkhaz. The 1954 census, she noted, claimed 2.58% of Abkhasia's population over 90, versus 0.1% in USSR, a figure verified according to the following method.

First, documentary evidence as sought to substantial their statements to demographers; second, a lengthy questionnaire was administered by local physicians. It included such questions as age when married, age when first child was born, age when the siege of Sevastopol occurred, and age when the Tuyrks invaded his village. 'If a respondent really knew his age, his answers would give a consistent pictures. If he did not know his true age, major discrepancies would apear. Unless the respondents (often an illiterate or semi-literate peasant) were extremely agile with numbers, any deliberate attempt to mislead the interviewer would also show up here.

This method, it should be noted, didn't allow (as noted above) for unintentional misunderstandings.

Still, as observed in the Globe and Mail some time ago, elderly Abkhaz do seem at least anecdotally to enjoy relatively happy lifespans.

Jinjolia's bent frame can be seen pacing the grounds of his sprawling three-hectare garden, occasionally leaning on his walking stick for support. His son and grandson are buried under a canopy farther up the mountain and Mr. Jinjolia still climbs the slope to sit at their graves.

His face is wizened now and his voice is a high-pitched whine, but Mr. Jinjolia's brown, darting eyes are clear. It's also clear that he rules the roost in the family home. At a late-afternoon lunch earlier, his family and neighbours stood in respect while he toasted guests.

They didn't touch their glasses until Mr. Jinjolia finished speaking from the head of the table.

Why has he lived so long? "I don't know," he shrugged. "All my life I've drunk and smoked and chased girls," he said, laughing.

But most of his life was just hard. He said he doesn't remember much about the Bolshevik Revolution, but he does remember the hard years that followed, when he was put to work at age 12 on a collective farm. "I was too young to go to work," he said.

When the Second World War erupted, Mr. Jinjolia was sent to the Russian front twice and was shot on both tours of duty. His two convalescences were the only periods in his life when he was hospitalized.

Once, in 1930, he says, he contracted malaria, but he drank some vodka and recovered. His first marriage ended in divorce, his second wife died and his third wife passed away 20 years ago.

He wanted to marry one more time, but was afraid he would outlive her too.

Ms. Ashuba's long life was also marked by the great social upheavals of the 20th century. She too picked tobacco for decades on a collective farm. After her husband was killed in the war, Ms. Ashuba raised six children on her own. Her salary from the collective farm was paid in food, not money.

"Each year, I prepared one tonne and 300 kilograms of tobacco and each month a I got a few pieces of soap, corn and sugar," she said.

Ms. Ashuba said her life improved after the Soviet Union's collapse even though the breakup brought more war and unrest to the Caucuses.

"Life here in Abkhazia is better," she said, during an interview beneath a cherry tree on her family's gated compound. "When I was young, I had to work all the time. I would work until I collapsed."

As she spoke, her 76-year-old son Ilia and 68-year-old daughter, Eteri, hovered nearby, periodically bringing coffee, cheese and vodka.

A neighbour, Natella Shlarba, said Abkhazians feel a moral duty to care for their elders. "We don't have [seniors' homes]. If you don't take care of your parents, no one will say hello to you on the street. All this love that is given to people makes them live longer."

Benet claimed that aging begins later among Abkhazians, with many working to an advanced age on light tasks, with a large minority having good vision and hearing, perhaps controversially claiming that Abkhaz had no phrase for "old people" (9-10). can this be justified?

Chapter 2 of her ethnography suggests it may be. Benet argues that Abkhaz are traditionally concerned with their weight as a health issue, with a traditional diet marked by moderate protein and little consumption of fat or carbohydrates, with wine, fruits and vegetables, honey, fermented milk, and fresh meat dominating. She further argues that age is the major determinant of social status instead of wealth or social tradition, with the elderly playing a central role in the preservation of Abkhaz culture and a strongly patriarchal and extended family structure encouraging close family ties and the elderly's continued participation in family life. The role played by age in social structure apparently didn't produce conflict between age groups since each age group inherited the privileges of the older ones in turn, all within a context of a culture with established mechanisms for resolving conflict (63). To the extent that genes play a role, Benet speculates that the relative isolation of the Abkhaz for millennia and established traditions of adoption, ritual and otherwise, may have helped consolidate a homogeneous gene pool. Benet's conclusion is unsurprising.

Abkhasians live as long as they do primarily because of the cultural, social and psychological factors that structure their existence. The most important are: the uniformity and predictability of both individual and group behaviour; the unbroken continuum of life's activities; and integration of the aged into the extended family and community life as fully functioning members in work, decision making, and recreation. No less important are thye culturally reinforced expectation of long life and good health; cultural mechanisms used in avoidance of stress and lack of intergenerational conflict. All these factors are most conducive to longevity (103).

Curiously, in a parallel she notes that longevity is paired with a relativly low birthrate, high rate of adoption, and flat age profile by the standards of surrounding population. For instance, a 19633 surbvey of Atara-Abkhaskaya revealed that some "60% of all peasant households had either one or two children, while 8.1% had no children at all. Two percent of the households had adopted one or two children, and only 12 percent had more than five children" (66).

Benet's analysis of the Abkhaz situation seems to hold up. Caloric restriction and diet do play a major role in sustaining health and extending lifespans; social structures which include the elderly at the same time they regulate derived social conflicts play important psychological roles; family structures which help create fairly broad and extended group solidarity help. The extent to which this has survived in an Abkhazia devastated by war and economic collapse is open to question, true, but I don't think it's too much to claim that despite the propaganda surrounding claims of special Abkhaz longevity there's still a fair bit that aging societies can learn about the ways in which the Abkhaz traditionally dealt with their health and with their elderly.

Friday, February 19, 2010

On the inconveniences of Ontario having high structural unemployment and rapid aging

The Canadian province of Ontario is easily the most populous province in Canada, with a population that's more than half again larger than the runner-up province, Québec. Ontario has long been a net receiver of migrants, firstly from the rest of the country then internationally. This, has helped keep Ontario's population young relative to the Canadian average.

Canada's most populous province is also one of the youngest, according to the Census of Population held on May 16, 2006. The proportion of people aged 65 and over is smaller in Ontario (13.6%) than in all other provinces except Alberta, and children form a larger portion of the population (18.2%) than in most other provinces. It is also noteworthy that Ontario was the only province other than Alberta whose population grew faster than the national average between 2001 and 2006.

The relative youthfulness of Ontario's population is due to a combination of factors. The cohorts born in Ontario between the First and Second World Wars were relatively small as the province had one of the lowest fertility rates in Canada at the time. These same small cohorts are the people who are age 65 and over today. Moreover, sustained immigration to Ontario since the late 1980s seems to have had an indirect impact on the number of births. Arriving in the province when they were about 30 on average, female immigrants come to Canada at an age when women are more likely to have children. That is one of the reasons that the percentage of children in Ontario has been higher than the national average since 1996.

Nevertheless, the population is aging in Ontario, as it is in every other part of Canada. The proportion of people aged 65 and over in the province rose from 12.9% in 2001 to 13.6% in 2006. Over the same period, the proportion of people under the age of 15 declined from 19.6% to 18.2%.

The Ontario government's latest projections estimate the province's population to be a bit more than 13.1 million, rising to 17.8 million by 2036, below-replacement fertility being compensated for by net migration, with immigrants providing a disproportionately large share of births. Ontario's share of the Canadian population is projected to rise from 39% now to 44.5% in 2036, while the intensifying urbanization of an already quite urbanized population will lead to the Greater Toronto Area hosting 51.5% of Ontario's population by 2036 (up from 41% now), with the proportion of the population in the 15-64 demographic falling from 69.3% to 60.7% and the proportion 65 and over rising from 13.7% to 23.2% over 2009-2036. Ontario's population is aging, certainly, but not as much as some other polities. Surely Canada's largest and (in aggregate) wealthiest province should be able to handle this?

Not necessarily. Earlier this month, Rick Miner made a blog post at the website of the National Post ("Ontario's coming unemployed legions
) warning that the province faces a crisis of mass unemployment even as the population ages.

[T]he province faces a growing number of people who will be unemployable, due to levels of education and skills that are insufficient to meet the demands of the new innovation economy.

While various policy-makers are grappling with our aging population and the shift to a knowledge economy, no one has put the two together and examined the consequences: More than 700,000 low-skilled Ontarians will be unemployable by 2021. That figure is in addition to the 5% of the population that is traditionally unemployed.

Taken together, it means that in 11 years’ time, more than 1.1 million people in Ontario will be unemployed with no prospects of finding work. That’s like having the entire populations of London, Barrie, Hamilton and Kingston unemployed.

Even worse, the massive unemployment will come at a time when employers will be desperate to find qualified people. Due to demographic changes such as the retirement of the baby boomers, along with the demands for a more highly skilled workforce, it can be safely estimated that more than 1.3 million jobs will go unfilled by 2021.

The skill sets of the workforce just aren't good enough.

Fifteen years ago, the Internet was virtually unknown. Now, it is an essential tool in most workplaces. Many of tomorrow’s high-demand jobs don’t even exist today. These jobs could be anything from nano-mechanic to memory augmentation surgeon or waste data handler. In many cases, jobs that could be filled by an unskilled person today will require a skilled employee by 2021.

In my new report, People Without Jobs, Jobs Without People: Ontario’s Labour Market Future, I have analyzed the data available from sources such as Statistics Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Canada Review, and other materials, including from the United States.

The research shows that even under the assumption of modest population growth, Ontario will still have a major unemployment problem.

By 2021, the experts predict at least 75% of Ontario’s population will require post-secondary education and training in order to be employable. However, if current trends continue, only 64% of the population is expected to have acquired post-secondary credentials by that time.

The study that Miner refers to is here (PDF format). He argues that immigration can't compensate for the low skill levels among the native-born population, since immigrants take a while to catch up to average levels of labour force participation and productivity. A vast multi-pronged approach--increasing the integration of immigrants and other under-represented groups, like women, in the labour force; vastly extending and developing the province's education system; encouraging on-the-job training--will be needed to prevent the province from slipping into very serious economic decline.

Population aging's the primary theme facing the entire world, but as working-age population's shrink relatively or even absolutely it's equally important that people belonging to this demographic have the training necessary to be productive enough to stabilize the economy of a country or region with a rapidly aging population. It's easy enough to expect that among countries with rapidly aging populations and lowest-low fertility, those countries with the more educated workforces (Germany? Japan? South Korea?) will fare significantly better (or less badly) than others (Italy? Spain?).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More on Russia's population trend

To follow up on Randy's discussion, here is a chart of Russia's age structure

It is fairly close to an inverted pyramid. And since the total fertility rate is currently below the replacement rate (1.4), the peak in cohort size between 20 and 30 yrs will show up as a smaller peak in the 10 and under cohort going forward. As the next chart shows, the population has stabilized temporarily. Since a sizeable portion of the population is now 50 and older, that group will shrink rapidly over time.

A rough calculation assuming a rate of population decline of .5% per year would result in a decrease per year of 700,000, and a decline in population to 128 million in twenty years’ time. Looking at the chart above, that would represent a serious decline.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Latest Working Papers and Articles on Ageing and Economics

By Claus Vistesen: Copenhagen

I get a list of these on a continuous basis and I thought that you would like to have a look. It is all academic stuff and some are very specific while others are more general. The quality fluctuates a lot too with respect to the lenght and depth. However, they provide a good primer on the latest resesarch in the context of ageing and economics.

  1. Date: 2009-10
    By: Bo MacInnis
    Using data from the Current Population Surveys, we find an increase in the fraction of older American men who worked without receiving Social Security retirement benefits and a decline in the fraction of men who claimed benefits without working during the period 1980-2006. Using bivariate probit regressions, we find that an increase in Social Security’s normal retirement age decreased labor force participation rate regardless of benefits receipt status; that an increase in the delayed retirement credit increased benefit receipt regardless of labor force status; and that labor force participation and claiming Social Security benefits are strongly and negatively correlated.

  2. Date: 2009-12
    By: Karen Smith
    Mauricio Soto
    Rudolph G. Penner
    We use the 1998-2006 waves of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to investigate how households change their asset holdings at older ages. We find a notable increase in the net worth of older households between 1998 and 2006, with most of the growth due to housing. Our results indicate that, through 2006, older households did not spend all of their capital gains. This asset accumulation provides older households with a financial cushion for the turbulence experienced after 2007. The wealth distribution is highly skewed, and the age patterns of asset accumulation and decumulation vary considerably by income group. High-income seniors increase assets at older ages. Middle-income seniors reduce their assets in retirement, but at a rate that for most seniors will not deplete assets within their expected life. Many low-income seniors accumulate fewer assets and spend their financial assets at a rate that will mostly deplete them at older ages, leaving low-income seniors with only Social Security and DB pension income at older ages.

  3. Date: 2009-12-11
    By: David de la CROIX (UNIVERSITE CATHOLIQUE DE LOUVAIN, Institut de Recherches Economiques etSsociales (IRES) and Center for Operations Research and Econometrics (CORE))
    Pierre PESTIEAU (University of Liege, CORE, Paris School of Economics and CEPR)
    Grefory PONTHIERE (Paris School of Economics and Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris)
    Introduced by Samuelson (1975), the Serendipity Theorem states that the competitive economy will converge towards the optimum steady-state provided the optimum population growth rate is imposed. This paper aims at exploring whether the Serendipity Theorem still holds in an economy with risky lifetime. We show that, under general conditions, including a perfect annuity market with actuarially fair return, imposing the optimum fertility rate and the optimum survival rate leads the competitive economy to the optimum steady-state. That Extended Serendipity Theorem is also shown to hold in economies where old adults work some fraction of the old-age, whatever the retirement age is fixed or chosen by the agents.
    Keywords: Serendipity Theorem, fertility, mortality, overlapping generations, retirement
    JEL: E13

  4. Date: 2009-06
    By: Scopelliti, Alessandro Diego
    The paper analyzes the issue of the financial sustainability of the Italian Pension System in the long-run, by discussing the main reforms occurred in the last few years and by examining some recent data: in particular, the data of the Italian Agency for the Evaluation of Social Security Expenditure on the budget of specific funds of the Social Security System, like the Fund for Private Employees and the Funds for Public Employees, and moreover the OECD data on the evolution of the replacement rate between pension benefit and labour income. Observing the evolution over the period 1989-2006, we notice that the current deficit of the first pillar of the pension system is caused, much more than in the past, by the deficit of the Funds for Public Employees, for the relevant difference between the value of the benefits and of the contributions, which is not registered in the other funds.
    Keywords: pay-as-you-go system ; retirement age ; defined contribution ; financial sustainability ; replacement rate ; private pension funds
    JEL: H55

  5. Date: 2009-10
    By: Giovanni Mastrobuoni
    In 1995, the Social Security Administration started sending out the annual Social Security Statement. It contains information about the worker’s estimated benefits at the ages 62, 65, and 70. I use this unique natural experiment to analyze the retirement and claiming decision-making. First, I find that, despite the previous availability of information, the Statement has a significant impact on workers’ knowledge about their benefits. These findings are consistent with a model where workers need to gather costly information in order to improve their retirement decision. Second, I use this exogenous variation in knowledge to analyze the optimality of workers’ decisions. Several findings suggest that workers do not change their retirement behavior: i) Workers do not change their expected age of retirement after receiving the Statement; ii) monthly claiming patterns do not show any change after the introduction of the Social Security Statement; iii) workers do not become more sensitive to Social Security incentives after receiving the Statement. Either, workers are already behaving optimally, or the information contained in the Statement is not sufficient to improve their retirement behavior.

  6. Date: 2009-11
    By: Richard W. Johnson
    Melissa M. Favreault
    Corina Mommaerts
    A patchwork of public programs—primarily Social Security Disability Insurance (DI), workers’ compensation, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and veterans’ benefits—provides income supports to people unable to work. Yet, questions persist about the effectiveness of these programs. This report examines the economic consequences of disability for a sample of Americans observed from age 51 to 64. The results underscore the precarious financial state for most people approaching traditional retirement age with disabilities. Disability rates roughly double from age 55 to 64. Fewer than half who meet our disability criteria ever receive disability benefits in their fifties or early sixties. Benefit receipt rates are much higher among those with the most severe disabilities, suggesting that benefits are targeted to those least able to work. However, even when models control for disability severity, women are less likely than men to receive benefits. Those with cancer and heart problem diagnoses are more likely to receive DI, suggesting that DI favors workers with certain medical diagnoses. Poverty rates for people who collect disability benefits in their fifties and early sixties more than triple following benefit receipt.

  7. Date: 2009-11
    By: Barry Bosworth
    Rosanna Smart
    This study explores the consequences of the housing price bubble and its collapse for the wealth of older households. We utilize micro survey data to follow the rise in home values to 2007, observing which households enjoyed home price appreciation and how they responded in terms of equity withdrawal. We then use the SCF survey data on wealth holdings from 2007 in combination with national price indexes to simulate the magnitude and distribution of wealth loss from the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The collapse of the housing market triggered a broad decline of asset prices that greatly reduced the wealth of all households. While older households mitigated their real estate and equity losses with relatively stable fixed-value assets and pension programs, no demographic group was left unscathed. Prior to the financial crisis, our study and others had concluded that the current baby-boom cohort of near retirees were surprisingly well-prepared for retirement compared with similarly aged households over the past quarter century. Unless there is a strong recovery of asset values in the next few years, that favorable assessment is no longer true.
  8. Date: 2010-01-25
    By: Pudney S (Institute for Social and Economic Research)
    We analyse FRS survey data on the relationship between disability and receipt of the Attendance Allowance (AA) disability benefit by older people. Despite being non-means-tested, we find that AA is implicitly income-targeted and strongly targeted on those with care needs. We focus particularly on the receipt of higher-rate benefit, intended for those in need of day-and-night care, finding that, in practice, higher-rate payments are negatively related to age and income, in addition to care needs. The allocation of higher-rate AA awards strongly favours people with physical rather than cognitive disabilities.

  9. Date: 2009-10
    By: Gary V. Engelhardt
    Jonathan Gruber
    We examine the impact of the expansion of public prescription prescription-drug insurance coverage from Medicare Part D has had on the elderly and find evidence of substantial crowd-out. Using detailed data from the 2002-6 waves of the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), we estimate that the extension of Part D benefits resulted in 75% crowd-out of prescription drug insurance coverage and 33%-50% crowd-out of prescription drug expenditures of those 65 and older. Part D is associated with relatively small reductions in out-of-pocket spending. This suggests that the welfare gain from protecting the elderly from out-of-pocket spending risk through Part D has been small.

  10. Date: 2009-12
    By: Norma B. Coe
    Anthony Webb
    Using data from the Health and Retirement Study, we compare actual inheritances received during the period 1994 to 2004 with the amounts that, in 1994, households anticipated receiving within 10 years. We find little evidence of systematic forecasting errors. The factors affecting inheritance receipt also affect expectation formation. Although the distribution is highly skewed, inheritances are generally modest in amount and uncorrelated with lifetime income, and therefore have almost no effect on various measures of inequality. We find no evidence that households anticipating receipt of an inheritance save less than that of similar households, although this could reflect unobserved heterogeneity in tastes for saving.
I will post these as they come into my mailbox. Feel free to leave comments on impressions and views on the specific papers.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A few more news links

For your reading pleasure, here's some population-related news links that I thought might interest you.

  • Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Nikola Krastev observes that even though populations are aging, fiscal issues and social isolation is making the lives of the elderly difficult.

  • Turkey's Today Zaman observes that Turkey's population is aging swiftly, its elderly population growing more quickly than its youth population.

  • Ha'aretz' Lily Galili notes that ex-Soviet Jews, by virtue of their removal to the very different environment of Israel, have enjoyed a much greater lifespan than they otherwise would have and are being assimilated to Israeli norms.

  • The CBC comments that Nova Scotia's rapidly aging has led to serious and growing economic problems in a depopulating rural Nova Scotia.

  • Billboards in Atlanta claiming that relatively high abortion rates among African-American women is threatening the survival of that community are as controversial as you'd expect.

  • Kenya's Daily Nation reports that remittances to Kenya, about half from North America and one-quarter from Europe, reached $609 million dollars in 2009.

  • French Pearce in the Guardian suggests that the sharp decline in Bangladeshi fertility rates can be explained by a combination of a Green Revolution that reduced the need for labour on farms and the economic empowerment of women.
  • Friday, February 05, 2010

    Some speculations on the effects of significantly extended lifespans

    ((I know that this post is speculative, almost absurdly so. Bear with me.)

    The idea of radically extending human life expectancy has been surfacing more and more in the media over the past few years. Back in October, I made a brief note about recent projections by demographers that, taking ongoing improvements in medicine into account, most of the children now being born in developed countries may become centenarians. The ongoing increase in human life expectancy is one of the biggest if quietest ongoing revolutions in the world, as medicine is slowly making any number of human ailments, from cancer to HIV/AIDS to the slow degeneration of the human form, treatable illnesses, while other non-medical ways of increasing the human lifespan (through caloric restriction, as an example) also show promise. In the Greek myth of Tithonus, that Trojan prince's lover Eos asked Zeus on his behalf that he be given the gift of immortality, which Tithonus did receive, but forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. It looks very much like the coming generation of human beings will not only enjoy longer lifespans but healthier lifespans as well.

    Demographics come into play here via Ira Rososfky at his Psychology Today blog, where he recently posed an interesting question: "[W]hat if science advanced to the point where life expectancy took a quantum leap or we became immortal? How would we cope with all those 200 and 300-year-old people?" In an earlier post, Rosofsky wondered whether a doubling of human life expectancy would make people self-protective to the point of paranoia. If humans gained relatively immunity from the aging process but not from "accidental illness or infectious diseases," Rosofsky wondered, might humans try to avoid taking any risks at all?

    Would individuals avoid contact with others for fear of illness? Would we all remove ourselves to reclusive existences living in the equivalent of a nursing home with padded walls and floors and grab bars so we could never fall and hit our heads?

    Would agoraphobia become a fact of life along with paranoia and hypochondria?

    I mean, if you know your life is going to be a brief candle of only seventy or eighty years, you might say: "Heck, life is short, so what difference does it make if I take some chances?"

    I know you could argue that a short life should actually make us more self-protective, but consider how you would feel knowing that if you died accidentally at seventy you could be missing out on more than one-hundred years of additional life? That's where madness and paranoia might lie.

    I'd argue that such paranoia isn't very different from what people experience today. Regardless, if the numbers of the (perhaps healthily and normally) superaged steadily grew, what would happen to the age pyramid, to economies, to the environment? One scientist, Leonid Gavrilov, has argued that limits to life expectancy are probabilistic rather than deterministic, and that despite lengthened lifespans populations need not rise substantially.

    Psychological consequences aside, Leonid Gavrilov, in "Demographic consequences of defeating aging," (presented at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Conference, Queens' College, Cambridge, England, September, 2009) asks: "Is it possible to have a sustainable population dynamics in a future hypothetical non-aging society?"

    In computer simulations, Gavrilov concluded that "population changes are surprisingly slow in their response to a dramatic life extension. For example, we applied the cohort-component method of population projections to 2005 Swedish population for several scenarios of life extension and a fertility schedule observed in 2005. Even for very long 50-year projection horizon, with the most radical life extension scenario (assuming no aging at all after age 50), the total population increases by 35 percent only (from 9.1 to 13.3 million)."

    Paradoxically, the population might even decline "if some members of the society reject to use new anti-aging technologies for some religious or any other reasons (inconvenience, non-compliance, fear of side effects, costs, etc.)."

    Immortal parents, if they had only one child per couple, would double the population over time. The population would not grow infinitely.

    "In other words, a population of immortal reproducing organisms can grow indefinitely in time, but not necessarily indefinitely in size, because asymptotic growth is possible," Gavrilov said in an interview with Rejuvenation Research (Volume 12, Number 5, 2009).

    "The startling conclusion is that fears of overpopulation based on lay common sense and uneducated intuition are, in fact, grossly exaggerated."

    He adds: "In brief, we found that defeating aging, the joy of parenting, and sustainable population size are not mutually exclusive. This is an important point, because it can change the current public perception that life extension necessarily leads to overpopulation."

    Much depends on the nature of fertility in this brave new world. If it's possible for people to become parents for a longer period of time--if reproductive organs retain their potency for longer, or if some technological combination like cloning and artificial wombs comes about--then their might be a longer window of fertility. Given the current tendency for fertility to be postponed, this might well allow replacement fertility to be reached even in societies marked by lowest-low fertility.

    One thing's for certain: if human lifespans are significantly extended, especially but not only if working lifespans are extended, the pensions systems currently existing will be almost absurdly unaffordable. If people could continue to retire in a particular country at (say) 65, while lifespans amounted to (say) 120 years and people would be sufficiently healthy to work to 100, barring unimaginably huge increases in productivity pensions specifically and social security systems generally would need to be massively revised.

    Thoughts? As I said at the beginning, this is an absurdly speculative post, but I'd be interested to see what you'd think of the situation. Don't worry: there's going to be a purely non-speculative post on this subject tomorrow.

    Wednesday, February 03, 2010

    Some more links

  • Writing in the Guardian, Fred Pearce uses the demographic situation in East Germany, defined by the mass emigration of its residents--esppecially well-qualified women--to the West, to wonder if East Germany will be the model for Europe in the generations to come.

  • Asia Times' Christian Segura writes about the Tibetan diaspora in Beijing; Tibet, it seems, is still marked by net emigration, not the reverse.

  • Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen links to an interesting study suggesting that the more male-biased the sex ratio in a Chinese region, the higher the savings rate (so as to make the sons more attractive in the marriage market).

  • The Independent's Cahal Milmo examines how the mass emigration of young Kyrgystani men to work in richer Russia and Kazakhstan is destabilizing traditional culture, creating yawning economic inequalities and destabilizing family traditions even as it provides the funds necessary for the survival of the people left behind.

  • Belgium's Le Vif/L'Express examines the history of Flemish immigration into Wallonia.