April 26, 2013


Challenges await as population ages

Considerable attention has been paid recently to our aging population. In the United States, it comes up whenever there are discussions on what to do about Social Security and Medicare. When these programs were started, most people didn’t live long after they retired, but now they often live for decades longer.

Meanwhile, there are fewer young people contributing to those programs, and there will be even fewer in years to come.

The problem isn’t just in the United States—it’s worldwide. Japan, for example, where the over-65 population is more than 30 percent, is experiencing population loss.

Not one European country is now at the fertility replacement level of 2.1 children, and the United Nations Population Division has projected a drop in Europe from 728 million people to 590 million by 2050, a population drop of 131 million people.

Then, of course, there’s China. Because of its one-child policy, it could lose 20 to 30 percent of its population every generation beginning around mid-century. Also because of the one-child policy, many girl babies have been aborted so the ratio of male to female births in China is now 117 to 100. That means that many Chinese men won’t be able to find women to marry unless they import them. China will age as much in one generation as Europe has in the last 100 years.

Even Latin America is experiencing a drop in population, which often happens when people no longer need large families to help do the farming or when it becomes more costly to raise children. Brazil went from a fertility rate of 6.2 in 1960 to 1.8 today and Mexico fell from 7.0 to 2.0.

People are often surprised to learn that fertility rates are quickly declining in the Middle East. Between now and 2050, the median age in Iran will rise by roughly 20 years, from 20 to 40. Similar trends are unfolding in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Algeria.

Africa—where the Catholic Church is growing so quickly—is the continent least marked by declining fertility. The fertility rate for sub-Saharan Africa is 5.6, and eight of the 10 nations with the highest fertility rates are in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa will grow by 132 percent between now and 2050, adding more than the entire present population of the United States, twice, in the next 40 years.

The United States is not going to age as much as other countries, although its fertility rate has dropped to 2.06. It had been above the 2.1 replacement mark because of immigrants who tended to have more children. The rate for Hispanics is currently 2.3, but it, too, is falling.

Hispanics also have a median age of 27 while that for whites is 40, so the Hispanic population isn’t aging as quickly.

Why this is happening is hardly a secret. People are having fewer children, and they’re living longer because of the advances in medicine. They’re having fewer children because, for various reasons, they’re choosing to have less children and have effective means to make their desire a reality. Abortion also plays a key role in the drop in the fertility rate.

Economics obviously plays a big role in couples’ decisions to limit the number of their children. Rearing children can be expensive. Our society’s mobility has couples often living thousands of miles from family members, so intergenerational support systems aren’t what they once were.

The entire world will be affected by these demographic changes, and that includes the Church. Parishes are already seeing a higher percentage of elderly parishioners, and they should prepare to be more involved in caring for the elderly. We might see nurses working either full- or part-time in many American parishes.

Catholic Charities agencies already provide assistance to the elderly, and that will surely increase in the future. Catholic hospitals and hospices realize that a more elderly generation is coming and are preparing for it.

The aging population isn’t all bad. Older people will supply a pool of volunteers that parishes will be able to count on, perhaps especially to visit those who are homebound or in hospitals, or to drive them to church.

And we might even see growth in the number of late vocations to the priesthood.

—John F. Fink

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