The global demographic crisis may be even worse than we thought. Not only is the number of people getting married before age 50 dropping precipitously; divorce is also rising rapidly. The most important (and perhaps most troubling) trend, however, is the rise of childlessness. According to Nicholas Eberstat at AEI (h/t Tyler Cowen), the number of childless households is very high in parts of Europe and Asia. “In Western Europe,” Eberstat writes, “nearly one home in three (32%) is already a one-person unit, while in autonomy-prizing Denmark the number exceeds 45%.” He lists several different statistics along these lines, and then notes:
That same flight [from the family] also has unforgiving implications for the vulnerable old. With America’s baby boomers reaching retirement, and a world-wide “gray wave” around the corner, we are about to learn the meaning of those implications firsthand.In the decades ahead, ever more care and support for seniors will be required, especially for the growing contingent among the elderly who will be victims of dementia, or are childless and socially isolated. Remember, a longevity revolution is also under way. Yet by some cruel cosmic irony, family structures and family members will be less capable, and perhaps also less willing, to provide that care and support than ever before.
Scholars are right to identify reversing this “flight from the family” as a key cultural priority. But even if that were achievable, there would still be an immediate problem of how to care for the elderly, and there’s no simple solution for this right now. This problem is exacerbated in the US by the fact that we tend to seriously undervalue how extensive our needs will be later in life, and so don’t take even modest steps to improve our preparations. Unless something dramatic happens in the coming years, this demographic transition is likely to bring with it a period of severe strain and hardship for many.