Now Canada, too, has had its senior moment. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested that Canada would soon join most other Western countries in raising its pension age to 67, he triggered an angry round of debate. We were late entering this argument: Europeans have been having it for a decade.
And it is only the beginning, because pensions represent only a tiny part of a much larger global problem. At its core are a set of non-problems: People around the world are living longer and having far fewer children – a consequence of increased female education rates and declining absolute poverty. Countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia and Iran are now having so few children that their populations are on the verge of shrinking – as would Canada’s if we didn’t take immigrants.
But the consequence of smaller families is fewer young people. And family sizes have plummeted so fast, around the world, that working-age adults are being outnumbered by seniors and children, who tend to be dependent on state funds for their health, education and livelihoods.
The world is on the threshold of what might be called “peak people.” The world’s supply of working-age people will soon be shrinking, causing a shift from surplus to scarcity. As with “peak oil” theories – which hold that declining petroleum supplies will trigger global economic instability – the claims of the doomsayers are too hyperbolic and hysterical. These are not existential threats but rather policy challenges. That said, they’re very big policy challenges.
Peak people will be an age when jobs compete for workers rather than vice versa. The cheapest labour will vanish. We’re already seeing this: Because China is aging very fast, its dwindling working-age population is turning down the lowest-paid jobs and pushing up the minimum wage sharply, as well as the once-minimal costs of social services: Stuff from China will stop being cheap, because the Chinese aren’t young.