THE DEMOGRAPHIC FATE OF intelligent SPECIES: 4/7. Can technology keep high-median-age societies materially rich? Will Skynet excel in feeding old frail humans?

4/7. Can technology keep high-median-age societies materially rich? Will Skynet excel in feeding old frail humans?

Are high-median-age societies economically and emotionally sound? Can we get away financially with fewer children? Do we still need at least 2.1 babies for psychological well-being? Isn’t our affluence-enabled self-indulgence excessive and unsustainable in the long term? If an outnumbered youth cannot feed and care adequately for the bigger generation of seniors that precedes them, the pendulum will, sooner or later, swing back toward more baby-making. But what will happen if the many practical challenges of a high-median-age society all turn out to be manageable?
On the economic side of the equation, can we really afford this new way of life? The answer for now is yes, with some caveats. Base-case forecasts from IMF, OECD and other think tanks all anticipate slow-but-still-positive growth in the long term for high-median-age economies. In other words, the most likely scenario from today's standpoint will be mild but continued GDP expansion, not a falling back to Sub-Saharan economic levels. Pending the necessary policy adjustments, living standards in the rich-and-old world will continue to rise in absolute terms, albeit more slowly than without population aging. This projected tomorrow doesn't look like a doomsayer's future of abject poverty, more like a growth-hating environmentalist's dream coming true. A Goldilocks situation, of sorts. While living standard stays high, a less-crowded society will, at last, reap the many quality-of-life benefits - more housing space, less carbon emission, less crime… - sought by governments decades ago, when official policy was trying to put an end to runaway world population growth. That distant day is finally within sight.
Even if the catastrophic scenarios seem unlikely, population aging still presents difficult economic challenges that demand radical policy adjustments. Troubles are looming for the rich-world pension systems that, being designed in much younger eras, tax the working population to pay for retiree benefits. Those dated schemes should fail in the near future when the bulk of the huge boomer generation retires. Due to insufficient reproduction by boomers in their prime years, there won't be enough taxable young workers to support so many retirees. That being said, a wide variety of solutions exist and can be combined to avert a systemic breakdown: tax raises (Northern Europeans suffer higher tax than Americans, yet they do better in happiness surveys), later retirement (healthy life is now much longer than when Social Security was rolled out), benefit cuts (pandering politicians promised the impossible, knowing they would be dead long before payment day), immigration (postponing the problem for a while, until immigrants' children become locals, with local procreative pattern), private savings account (pioneered in those socialist havens of Germany and Sweden)…
Whatever the reform mixture adopted, an even bigger determinant of our economic outlook is productivity growth. A smaller workforce won't be a problem as long as the remaining workers become more productive. This is how Japan - where the population is aging and shrinking fast - manages to achieve above-zero growth in recent decades, as productivity rise slightly outweighs population decline. If recent productivity improvement continues, the average worker's output, having more than doubled in the last 50 years, will double again by mid-21st century. Boring statistics aside, a higher living standard brought by continued productivity growth will result in some very tangible progress: smarter assisted homes for the average senior, always-on HD video-conferencing that allows the virtual presence of loved ones… Productivity growth happens mainly through technological innovation. Can an older and smaller society keep innovating? There are reasons for hope. The record human capital invested in our fewer, ''quality'' children will certainly help. With machines taking over the hammer-and-sickle jobs, our descendants will mostly work in brainy professions. Though the work force may get smaller, as long as the percentage of knowledge workers continues to rise, innovations shouldn't be a problem. New ideas don’t require billions of scientists the way archaic agriculture and industries needed masses of illiterate toilers.
As a necessary condition, humanity cannot fade away until humans have built a highly autonomous computer-based economy that can cater for people’s material demands virtually by itself, unattended, lowering significantly the economic need for humans to be born to support those born before them. Very few of our descendants will be needed to keep that integrated life-support system functioning. Given how much technology has transformed our life during the 20th century - which started in London, Paris and New York full of horse-drawn carriages and ended on the Internet - the odds of a Skynet-feeding-humans future in 2100 are not that small. Two major progresses of the last 100 year - reduced work time for the average worker and the rise of the welfare state - clearly point to the emergence of a people-feeding automated system in the developed world. Modernization is about more machine muscle and less human sweat. Qualitatively, most physical tasks, the Achilles heel of aged people, nowadays involve some sort of machine, leaving the feeble humans only buttons to press. Quantitatively, today's post-work society must be hard to imagine a century back. Our modern full-time workweek of 40 hours would look suspiciously part-time beside a Gilded Age 70-hour sweatshop job. Taking away school time, weekends, holidays, vacations, sick leaves, sabbatical years, between-jobs gap, retirement... humans have never worked this little during a lifetime. A state-run welfare system that feeds and houses a big percentage of the population is also unprecedented in human history. Though debates are still raging on how to fairly divide the fruit of technological advances or whether a negative income tax should become permanent..., the undeniable fact remains that we increasingly rely on ever smarter machines to cater for ourselves.
How long until the day when the robots will totally take care of us, Wall-E style? That day is coming, sooner or later. As long as humans don't lose their creative brains, time is on the machines' side. Even if it takes, say, 10,000 years to figure out the technologies that reconcile population aging and economic prosperity, we will eventually get there. A 10-millennium searching period wouldn't be much on the grand timescale of the species. With computers and robots, non-existent 100 years ago, still quickly gaining in power, it looks like we won’t have to wait 10,000 years. The ongoing process of modernization that brought us here may get us there pretty soon. Should the innovative pace of the 20th century continue, at the end of the 21st century our descendants may all work today's part-time hours and get some form of unconditional living income. After the physical jobs, routinized intellectual tasks will also be entrusted to the machines, AI computers this time. It's an open discussion whether AI would terminate us all someday in a machine rebellion before starting its own civilization. All we know is that a self-functioning life-support system for humanity, the necessary condition for the species' old age, is gradually surfacing, little by little, through advances in computing, artificial intelligence, robotics… The same technological revolution that has reduced children's economic value in its early hours will go on to render them completely unnecessary for our material well-being.
Enabling technology being the necessary condition, the sufficient condition for our demographic fading will always remain human choice. Technology is neutral, it doesn't dictate a direction. If people choose procreation, technology can help with, for example, an artificial uterus. Combined with previous breakthroughs like a sperm and egg bank, this new invention will smash the so-called biological clock. Future generations will be able to reproduce as many as they want whenever they want, even after having partied - or worked - away their entire fecund years. Technology, if need be, can also open up new living space elsewhere in the universe - the way steamboats made intercontinental mass migration possible - for all the babies their parents may want. For all these possibilities, however, technology could as well drive fertility even lower: if another procreative chance always exists, folks, full of confidence, may be tempted to postpone indefinitely.
At the end of the day, when human ingenuity will have removed technical obstacles in all directions - having many or zero babies, only human desire matters. Its affordability aside, how desirable is this brave new world of few children?

(Next) 5/7. Population aging is always reversible if high-median-age societies are sad and lonely. But if most elderly feel fine emotionally?

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