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Old Age Wasted On the Old

Article by John Derbyshire.
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A toast, ladies and gentlemen, to Mr. Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay of Nepal, who shuffled off this mortal coil on Monday afternoon at age 82. Mr. Upadhyay was at 18,700 feet above sea level when he turned in his lunch pail, most of the way up Mount Everest. He was trying for the summit in hopes of being the oldest person ever to conquer the mountain. That glory was not vouchsafed to him. It remains the property of a different Nepalese geezer, Min Bahadur Sherchan, who reached the summit three years ago at age 76.

This news story happened to come under my eye just as I had finished Fred Pearce’s 2010 book The Coming Population Crash, now out in paperback. Pearce’s subject is demography, a big conversation topic nowadays. The developed world, as we all know, is failing to reproduce itself, sometimes sensationally so.

A hypothetical Japanese woman whose fertility, at every age x of her reproductive life, was precisely the average for today’s x-year-old Japanese females, would have only 1.21 hypothetical children. That is Japan’s Total Fertility rate (TFR). Since men do not have babies, the entire burden of replacing humanity’s current stock falls on women, who must therefore produce two adults apiece. Allowing a margin for babies born who do not become breeding adults, we need a TFR of at least 2.1 for a stable population. At 1.21 the Japanese are falling down badly on the job, though not as badly as the Taiwanese (1.15), Singaporeans (1.11), Hong Kongers (1.07), and Macanese (0.92).

“One life is quite enough for me, and its last stretch, if granted, ought to be quiet and undemanding.”

The consequences are obvious and well-known: Japan is aging. Plenty of other nations are close behind: Poland at 1.30, Italy at 1.39, and so on. China’s TFR is listed in the CIA World Factbook as 1.54, but analysts crunching the just-released numbers from last November’s census think 1.4 is more likely.

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