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Granite Geek: The 'Silver Tsunami' Comes to Northern New England

Huy Phan

Over the past few decades, birth rates across the world have been falling. Retirees are growing in number while the number of young working people is relatively flat. And that’s a problem if you need those workers to in some ways help pay for the rising cost of aging.

David Brooks has been writing about this so-called "silver tsunami" for The Concord Monitor and he'll host a Science Cafédiscussion of this very topic on Tuesday, March 21st at 6 p.m. at The Draft Sports Bar in Concord. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

David, what do we mean when we talk about the “Silver tsunami”?

You described it very well, actually, in the introduction. It means too many people look like me, and not enough people look like my kids. “Silver,” as in silver hair. And it’s a function of falling birthrates throughout the developed world and to a certain extent in the developing world. Women are having fewer children and they’re not having them as early in life, and the result is that what we’d come to sort of think of as the normal spread of ages in a society is changing. Also, people are living longer. Baby boomers like me are going to hang around for decades. Sorry.

The number of children coming in as old people die off is declining and old people aren’t dying off as soon. So there’s an imbalance from what we’ve expected in terms of percentages of old people vs. percentages of young people.

I should say, David, that we do like having you around.

That’s good, that’s good.

What you’re describing sounds like there are more and more older people who have, in some ways, a greater need for services, health care and whatnot, and there are fewer young working people who are paying taxes to support those services. Ergo, we have a “silver tsunami.”

That term has been around a little while.

Right, we’re not making that up for this interview.

I did not copyright that, unfortunately.

So to what extent is it an issue in New Hampshire?

Northern New England in general has actually been facing this issue for a while. In Maine, the population is actually declining. So many more people are dying than being born or moving into the state. Vermont is very close to that. New Hampshire is still growing a little bit but we’re definitely not keeping or attracting young adults. We’re keeping too many people who look like me. And there’s a lot of reasons for that, which is why we’re having a Science Café to discuss it.

Are there other places that are being hit hard by this?

All over the place. For us it’s a function of non-Hispanics whites—we’re a very white area—and for whatever reason non-Hispanic whites in the US and many parts of the world are not having as many children.

But east Asia—Japan of course—Japan’s population is actually falling by a lot. It’s a very large country, but the population is falling by hundreds of thousands per year because so few people are being born. But South Korea is facing it, even China, of all places, which is the population bomb poster child. They’ve been controlling the birth rate for so long that all of a sudden they’re realizing they have all these old people not very many young people coming along. Their population may peak very soon.

There is, as you write in your column this week, one good thing about the decline in birth rates, and that’s the environmental impact of having fewer people introduced to the population.

It’s not a good thing, it’s the good thing. It’s the necessary thing. If this wasn’t happening, we’d really be in trouble.

Meaning, we’d run out of resources?

Sure, the population bomb. I grew up with the population bomb. The thinking was: “Oh my gosh, we’re going to be standing in the ocean soon because there are so many people.”

So the declining birth rate is good thing, but it has some short-term implications, and that’s what’s interesting about it.

Learn more about Science Café

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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