What causes the ‘silver tsunami’? Science Cafe dives into demographics

Monitor staff
Tuesday, March 21, 2017

If you grew up worrying about the population explosion destroying Earth, it’s a little hard to wrap your head around the fact that under-population is an increasing complication.

Consider Maine, which has shrunk in population over the last couple of years, or Vermont, which is close to shrinking. They would love to have more people, especially young people, who can make money that will help pay for all their retirees.

Japan, South Korea, eastern Europe (including Russia) and most of western Europe, parts of South America and even China – all of them have seen birth rates tumble much faster and further than anybody expected, often falling below the rate of 2.1 births over a woman’s lifetime necessary keep population steady.

This fall in the global birth rate – from 4.45 in 1970 to about 2.5 in 2014 – is truly amazing. I’d call it one of the three most unexpected global trends that have happened in my lifetime, along with the decline of communism and public cigarette smoking in the U.S. Nobody in their right mind would have predicted any of those when I was a kid.

This decline in birth rates is creating breathing space for global environmental problems, but is producing a mismatch in oldsters-versus-youngsters that is rattling many economies. That includes New Hampshire, which unlike our neighbors is still growing in population but is growing slowly and not in a way needed to avoid the shortage-of-young-adults issue.

This problem is often described as an excess-of-old-people problem, a.k.a. the “silver tsunami.” By 2030, which isn’t that far away, nearly half a million Granite Staters will be over the age of 65 – needing a lot of social and medical services. At the same time, the number of young people is flat or declining.

But why, you ask, are we seeing this mismatch of young and old? Have couples stopped canoodling? Are senior citizens fleeing Massachusetts for the “good life” up north? Does that “Bienvenue” on welcome signs at the border secretly mean “Go away, everybody who doesn’t remember using a dial telephone”?

Good questions, so you should come to Science Cafe Concord tonight and ask them. (Actually, I hope you’ll ask better questions than that.)

The latest installment of our free monthly discussion series will tackle demographics in New Hampshire, New England and elsewhere, and will feature three experts in demographics: Ken Johnson of the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH; Steve Norton of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies; and Ken Gallager, senior planner with the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.

As an aside, I have to brag that this is as impressive a lineup as Science Cafe New Hampshire has gathered in its six years of operation. These are folks who read census reports for entertainment, so they can help us understand what factors in births, deaths, in-migration and out-migration have led to the current situation and what may happen down the road.

This panel has the experience and knowledge to make up a TED Talk – and that high-falutin group would charge you $500 to attend, while this is free. Plus we have beer and pub food.

As always it starts at 6 p.m. on Tuesday at The Draft Sports Bar, 67 S. Main St. Show up early to get a good table.

Whatever the color of your hair, hope to see you there.


(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)