»  Taki's Magazine

May 12th, 2011

  Old Age Wasted on the Old

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A toast, ladies and gentlemen, to Mr Shailendra Kumar Upadhyaya of Nepal, who shuffled off this mortal coil on Monday afternoon at age 82. Mr Upadhyaya was at 18,700 feet above sea level when he turned in his lunch pail, most of the way up Mount Everest. He was trying for the summit, in hopes of being the oldest person ever to conquer the mountain. That glory was not vouchsafed to him. It remains the property of a different Nepalese geezer, Min Bahadur Sherchan, who reached the summit three years ago at age 76.

This news story happened to come under my eye just as I had finished Fred Pearce's recent (2010) book The Coming Population Crash, now out in paperback. Pearce's subject is of course demography, a big conversation topic nowadays. The developed world, as we all know, is failing to reproduce itself, sometimes sensationally so.

A hypothetical Japanese woman whose fertility, at every age x of her reproductive life, was precisely the average for today's x-year-old Japanese females, would have just 1.21 hypothetical children. That is Japan's Total Fertility rate (TFR). Since men do not have babies, the entire burden of replacing the current stock of humanity falls on women, who must therefore produce two adults apiece. Allowing a margin for babies born who do not become breeding adults, we need a TFR of about 2.1 for stable population. At 1.21 the Japanese are falling down badly on the job, though not as badly as the Taiwanese (1.15), Singaporeans (1.11), Hong Kongers (1.07) and Macanese (0.92).

The consequences are obvious and well-known: Japan is aging. Plenty of other nations are close behind: Poland at 1.30, Italy at 1.39, and so on. China's TFR is listed in the CIA World Factbook as 1.54, but analysts crunching the just-released numbers from last November's census think 1.4 is more likely.

Fred Pearce puts a happy face on the whole business. Europeans breeding below replacement level? No prob — just bring in more North Africans!

There are today almost 3 million Moroccans, 1.2 million Algerians, and 700,000 Tunisians living in Europe, along with numerous other groups. Most have jobs. Europe needs them. Ever more of them. So they come, only to be treated as invaders.

Invaders? Good grief! Why on earth would Europeans not welcome them? Hard to figure.

Pearce is just as blithe about the aging problem. This last section of his book is titled "Older, Wiser, Greener." Geezers are a resource, he wants us to know. They have all that accumulated wisdom about life. And they're less consumerist, more appreciative of the little things in life — greener.

(I am sorry to report that around this point in Pearce's book Benjamin Franklin's apothegm about older women came to mind: "They don't yell, they don't tell, they don't smell, and they're grateful as hell." Yes, shame on me.)

So put 'em to work!

British journalist Katherine Whitehorn, herself eighty but still pounding away at the laptop, puts it this way: "The days when you were at work by your early 20s at latest, rose to some sort of seniority by 45, and retired at 60 or so are obviously over. … The old are going to have to work longer …"

All very well for Ms Whitehorn, who just has to knock out a few hundred words of fugitive journalism a week. What of people in more demanding lines of work? (I think I'd better concede that there are more demanding lines of work.) Eighty-year-old air traffic controllers? Come on.

And by the way, the incidence of Alzheimer's is 42 percent in Americans aged over 84. That, I'll allow, is something we may be able to science our way out of, as we scienced our way out of the mass famines predicted by 1960s gloomsters like Paul Ehrlich. We haven't done so yet, though.

There's a strong difference of opinion about old age. Some of us, like Mr Upadhyaya, want to defy the aging process; not so much raging against the dying of the light as just striding on forward regardless. The proprietor of this magazine is of the same kidney — still, though well into his seventies, a competitive sportsman.

Others insist that after a few decades of being useful in the world, one is entitled to put one's feet up and watch the grass grow. Just as youth is said to be wasted on the young, this faction tells us, old age is wasted on the Upadhyayas and Takis of the world.

The difference of opinion here can be quite passionate. The latter point of view was once expressed to me quite vehemently by a fifty-something friend in an otherwise humdrum conversation about Tennyson.

The great Victorian laureate wrote a poem titled "Ulysses." We see Homer's adventurer in old age, pondering his life, and wondering what to do with as much of it as is left.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains …

At last he decides to go off adventuring again:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

My friend took quite personal exception to this. "Silly old fool! Doesn't he know that life has stages? That what's appropriate at twenty is totally inappropriate at sixty? …"

(A sentiment Dr Johnson seems to ratify: "Why, Sir, our tastes greatly alter. The lad does not care for the child's rattle, and the old man does not care for the young man's whore." Johnson was 56 at the time.)

I suppose it is ultimately a matter of temperament. Certainly I am not looking to try conclusions with our esteemed proprietor. To each his own, and we may honor those we don't wish to follow.

For myself, I must say, the prospect of "life piled on life" seems appalling. One life is quite enough for me, and the last stretch of it, if granted, ought to be quiet and undemanding. So I'll toast Mr Upadhyaya, but I shall not be emulating him.