The Challenge of An Aging Population

In 2001, I was editing a magazine on the future of church ministry. I approached respected author, academic and church consultant, Richard Kew to write about what he thought was a critical future trend the church needed to be aware of. This is what he wrote. Now, nearly a decade later, it’s still important, and his advice should still be heeded.

Last weekend I was invited to speak at, and participate in, a consultation on ministry among the aging. It was a fascinating weekend. I learned a lot, met some interesting people, and (I hope) was able to make a small contribution to the process. This weekend I sat down with the November 3, 2001, issue of The Economist, and found a major survey of the near future by Peter Drucker that has me questioning — as well as building upon — some of the things that I said last Saturday!

Drucker is venerable in every sense of that word. Now 92, his mind is still as clear as a bell, and for someone who is highly unlikely to live long enough to see some of the things he is talking about, he is obviously very engaged with what tomorrow might look like. At the heart of some of his projections is his recognition that the developed world’s population is aging to such an extent, that the social safety nets all western democracies have put in place are utterly inadequate.

Here’s a nugget to ponder: “By 2030, people over 65 in Germany, the world’s third-largest economy, will account for almost half the adult population, compared with one-fifth now. And unless the country’s birth rate recovers from its present low of 1.3 per woman, over the same period its population of under-35s will shrink about twice as fast as the older population will grow. The net result will be that the total population, now 82m, will decline to 70m-73m. The number of people of working age will fall by a full quarter, from 40m to 30m.”

For the same reasons, Japan’s population will peak in 2005 and will decline from 125 million to around 95 million in the following 45 years. Life expectancy has been rising at the same time that birth rates have been declining in the West, and already developing economies like China are seeing their birth rate drop below replacement levels. This means incredible changes are on their way for our economies, all of which have been geared to meet the needs of an avalanche of younger rather than older citizens. It also means that the issues of pensions and immigration are going to be THE hot domestic topics in Europe, North America, and other developed countries for the rest of our lives and well beyond.

Drucker makes it quite clear that by 2025-2030 it is highly unlikely that there will be resources available for state-sponsored retirement funds for anyone until they are into their mid seventies, and, indeed, we may be moving toward a time when fixed retirement ages for people in reasonable physical and mental health are a thing of the past. So far, only the USA, Canada, and Australia, among Western nations, have in place the national culture that can absorb immigrants at the pace necessary to fill the vacuum, and even in these countries there are tensions about what immigration does to the existing culture.

This is a raft of information that the churches ignore at their own peril, and it will profoundly influence the pattern of ministry and funding of ministry as we move into the future:

1. Patterns of employment will change. Older people will carry on working much further into their elderhood. I, personally, do not expect to properly retire until I am at least 72-75, and maybe beyond that. There are theological and discipleship reasons for my own commitment to continuing to work, but also, I recognize that older pastors are going to be necessary to work among seniors as they try to adjust to a radically changing set of affairs where their lot is far less comfortable than that of their elders.

2. Patterns of giving are going to change. I suspect that we will see seniors, who have been the moneybags for the churches in the last 40-50 years, setting aside much more of their resources to support them when they are beyond working age than is the case at the moment. This means that ministry will have to look for other ways to fund itself, and I am increasingly convinced that a mixed economy of donations, fees-for-service, and semi-commercial enterprises will be part of the way forward. Financially successful congregations are going to be those who find creative ways of pulling such a mixed economy off.

3. Christian resources will have to be focused on ministry among the elders of society. This means evangelistic ministry as well as care ministry. One of the biggest unreached people groups in the USA today is those aging Boomers whose lives are bereft of anything that has to do with a living, eternal relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, we need to spend dollars on youth ministry, but yes, I think that tomorrow’s church budgets will have to have a major segment set aside to fund much more extensive ministry among seniors.

4. There will be human resources available of which we have made limited use to this point. One of the things about seniors is that since World War Two we have seen the so-called golden years as a time when folks are out to pasture. We are now in a position where we have tens of thousands of fit, able-bodied, men and women who should have more challenges to address that merely swanning round the country in their RVs “spending their children’s inheritance.” Men especially, particularly those who have lived stimulating lives, need to be given more than tasks of ushering, counting the money, or if they are good, sitting on the vestry — one of the reasons there are so few men in churches today is that we have not provided them with challenges, so (among other things) they perceive the Gospel to be trivial. We have folks in our congregations now who have the energy and the ability to make a significant difference for the Kingdom in their third age. For example, I have noticed that almost every church plant I know has at least one older couple part of it, and they are very often the pillars who make this new congregation happen.

5. We must be prepared to tailor parish life to suit the less predictable lifestyles of the elders. While it is likely that elders will continue to work, it is also likely that the jobs they will take on will not be life-long salaried employment for one organization. This means that the Christians a congregation has available might be going like slaves for several months working on a temporary employment assignment, and then be available for several months for something that the parish has in mind.

6. Following on from the previous point, we need to multiply the mission opportunities available to elders both at home and abroad. I am delighted that SAMS, of which I was the founding chair as quarter of a century ago, is now sending hundreds of short termers to Latin America every year. We need to find similar opportunities at home and find ways that elders can become part of them. Habitat for Humanity probably has some lessons it can teach us in this realm.

7. We will continue to have an explosive immigrant population that we will need to reach. These immigrants will come in because they will be needed to fill the gaps in the workforce left by the fact that the overall population is aging. How we reach out with the message to these folks is crucial. I noticed in something that came over my transom the other day that immigration has so changed the balance of religion in the UK that by 2015 it is likely there will be more practicing Muslims than practicing Anglicans. A similar process is underway here, and we ignore it at our peril. So, while immigrants are coming in to meet our needs, they will also be changing the face and shape of our world — as well as setting themselves up to be the next generation of elders.

8. The massive increase in the number of the elderly in need of care is going to put greater pressure on families, and especially women with careers. There are just not going to be the number of professional caregivers necessary, or the resources to pay for support for elders who need care in the years ahead. Already we are facing a nursing crisis, and this is only going to get worse by all accounts. The burden of caring for the elderly has traditionally fallen on middle-aged women, yet these are the folks who have been most liberated from yesterday’s roles and expectations by the information economy. This means that parishes are going to need to find ways of providing considerable support for tomorrow’s “sandwich generation.” The sandwich is now a club sandwich, by the way, for this is the first time in human history that five generations are likely to be alive at the same time. One component of this conundrum is that men must be conditioned to understand that caring for elders is THEIR job as well.

9. I suspect that we are going to see a return to more extended families as a way of coping with the pressures that so many aging folks are going to put on the system. The downside of this is that it is going to reduce mobility, and at the same time it is going to make life even more difficult for those who are single or who are alone in the world. Single people either need to be part of a larger, extended family, or they are going to need to save huge amounts of money to keep themselves from penury in old age. As I do not see many Boomers doing this, I suspect that we will have a major care crisis on our hands within 10-15 years — and this we are not preparing for.

10. We just do not know how this is going to reconfigure the economy. We do not know whether the world economy has the resources to deal with such a surge of elderly, coupled with such a drop the proportionate size of younger generations. We do not know what will happen to developed economies when their population begins to shrink. Could we be in for a period of economic decay that leaves us all in fiscal trouble? We do not know whether the increasingly militant (and much younger and overwhelmingly male) developing world cultures will see a vacuum that they want to fill and begin invasions of a formal or surepticious kind. This is truly a wild card, and made more wild by our realizations following September 11.

Here’s Drucker’s final warning from his Economist article: “All this suggests that the greatest changes are almost certainly still ahead of us. We can also be sure that the society of 2030 will be very different from that of today, and that it will bear little resemblance to that predicted by today’s best-selling futurists. It will not be dominated or even shaped by information technology. It will, of course, be important, but it will be only one of several important new technologies. The central feature of the next society, as of its predecessors, will be new instititions and new theories, ideologies and problems.”

I suppose the question we need to address is how the Christian church fits into that mix in a multi-ethnic, pluralistic world.

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