Yesterday’s Guardian (1st February 2010) included an interesting feature on the consequences of rapidly falling fertility rates. The tone was highly apocalyptic, peppered with references to “population crash”, “baby famine” and a “demographic abyss”. Referring to a near-derelict town in former Eastern Germany, the article suggested that current population trends may spell a similar future for much of the developed world as well as some developing countries. It would seem that we face a future world where children will be found in museums rather than schools. This will be a world largely populated by older people –or as the Guardian puts it in a surprising lapse of political correctness, “The rise of the wrinklies”. Apparently, this will not all be bad news. Even as we are condemned to live in a crumbling economic wasteland, our advanced years will make us “wiser, and greener too”.
This combination of exaggeration, stereotyping and contradiction is not unusual in media commentary on fertility decline and population ageing. There is a substantial and growing body of academic evidence demonstrating that the consequences of population change are highly nuanced and strongly influenced by policy choices. Likewise, experiences of later life are very diverse, eschewing stereotypes. Rather than grapple with these complex issues, journalists are more inclined to simpler sensationalist predictions, such as those found in Peter Petersen’s Grey Dawn or Phillip Longman’s The Empty Cradle. Just as with the old scare stories of population “time bombs”, there is an urgent need for more measured and less clichéd reporting and analysis.
Professor of Social Policy and International Development in the School of International Development, University of East Anglia, UK
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