THE “problem” of population ageing has been a staple of political pontification for decades. In fact, the main points covered in the average think-piece on the topic were old hat well before many of us were born. The great French demographer Alfred Sauvy discussed most of them in an article entitled “Social and Economic Consequences of the Ageing of Western European Populations” published back in 1948. (His analysis also extended to “countries with a similar civilisation” across the English-speaking world.) Where he was right and, more importantly, where he was wrong, Sauvy presented the key points more clearly than most of his successors.
The Frenchman observed a trend that extended back at least a century. This was the “demographic transition” from a population with high birth rates, high death rates and a low average age to one with low birth rates, low death rates and a high average age. “Ageing happens, as it were, from both ends,” he wrote, “that is to say by a decrease in natality (fewer young people) and by the lengthening of human life (more old people).”
As it turned out, Sauvy was prematurely correct about the decrease in natality. That long-term trend was interrupted by the “baby boom,” which was just beginning when he wrote his essay and was initially believed to be a temporary blip once couples were reunited after the war.
But even in error, Sauvy was closer to the mark than today’s ageing alarmists. In the standard version of the story, baby boomers are seen as the major cause of population ageing, responsible for all manner of social ills. In reality, the baby boom deferred the demographic transition by several decades. If the boom hadn’t occurred, the average age of the population would have risen much earlier…