Shock of Gray, Ted C. Fishman, Scribner, 2010

Reviewed by Graham Mulligan


The subtitle to this book describes the broad themes as: ‘The aging of the world’s population and how it pits young against old, child against parent, worker against boss, company against rival, and nation against nation”. The world’s population is getting older and as it does it is bringing new challenges for all societies. Fishman warns, “the number of old and very old is climbing, and we all have a lot of work to figure out how this change will affect us personally and communally in the next few decades”.  Discrimination against older people is a key force in the world today and the author takes us on a worldwide journey as he describes how this plays out.


Factors that change young societies into aging ones are the same factors that make globalization attractive: literacy and education that allows greater participation in the workforce; better public healthcare enabling people to live longer, healthier lives; the movement of populations from low productivity agriculture jobs to high productivity urban jobs and the increased participation of women in the workforce. The choices facing all governments that have aging populations are either to provide for aging and reduce expenditure on everything else or lower their commitment to provide for the aging portion of their population and spend on everything else.


Fishman’s writing style and scholarship is fast paced and thorough. In an entertaining opening chapter entitled Greetings from Florida, God’s Waiting Room, he describes the retirement scene in Sarasota where staying active mentally and physically is the goal. “Migrants who come to Sarasota in the second half of life, or its final third, quarter or tenth, do not come to grow old and fade. They come for rejuvenation. They come to spread their wings.” The top retirement complex is Plymouth Harbor (you can see it here but there is a price. Service jobs are low paid jobs and there are a lot of service jobs looking after the elderly.


Spain and Japan are two places where the phenomenon of living longer can be studied because both countries are going through this earlier than most. Spain is the fastest aging country in Europe and a replacement younger population isn’t going to come from within. So what are the choices? Fishman describes how Spanish authorities seek to replace the working age population with immigrants. Immigration is coming from traditional sources like Morocco or Latin America, where Spanish speaking workers looking for a better life (money) can easily come to work and send home remittances to raise the living standard of family members back home.  Contrast this to Japan where a tight racially pure society spurns immigration. By 2050 Japan will have 41 million fewer inhabitants! Tokyo and its contiguous urban areas has a population of 35 million people, a quarter of the country’s people. Fishman describes the urban culture of the city where old men are called “Big Junk” or “Soggy Leaves” (ouch). Women, on the other hand, are caught in a life-long trap of servitude, first to their children and then to their parents who are living now longer than ever before. Both Spain and Japan are healthy places to live and growing old, very old, is common and food, it seems, is the reason.


North American cities hollowed out by globalizing multinational corporations and the recent recession seek to adapt to the double blow of economic change and demographic change by asserting a new vigorous response. One interesting example is Kalamazoo where something called ‘The Promise’ offers a no-strings-attached pledge to provide every schoolchild in the city tuition money to attend any public college or university in Michigan. The idea is to draw people to the community and keep them engaged. Another phenomenon known as a NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) is seen as a stable way of life without giving up social connections. Self-organized communities of older citizens live in close proximity in condominiums or suburban neighborhoods in places like metropolitan Phoenix or Atlanta or Kelowna.


Fishman’s last example of an aging society is China. This comes as a surprise when we think of the rapidly developing China we see on the news but when we look at the numbers we see a different picture. In 2009 the over-sixty population equaled 167 million people. By 2050 one in three Chinese citizens will be over sixty!


Next in line for the aging of its population (and currently undergoing rapid transforming globalization) is India. After that comes Africa.



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