THE DEMOGRAPHIC FATE OF intelligent SPECIES: 5/7. Population aging is always reversible if high-median-age societies are sad and lonely. But if most elderly feel fine emotionally?

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

Can later life be happy without many children? For their baby cuteness and grown-up friendship, tiny humans will always be born, even in a very high median age society. The issue is not voluntary childlessness; it's whether a world of 1.3 or 1.8 kids per mum is such a good deal, emotionally, when we age? Happiness requires junk food and TV, for sure, but also love and companionship. Humans are social animals. Few want a sick, frail and lonely old age. Aren't fertile-age people trading their future happiness, which demands more child-rearing efforts now, for the immediate gratifications of the present? Is this low-fertility world psychologically sustainable?
If old age is defined as the time span between the day you can afford to stop working and your death, it was virtually non-existent throughout history. Most seniors of yore had to work for a living until they no longer could physically. Few had time to be alone and inactive. And they were rarely alone anyway. Economically and emotionally, the old were neatly integrated into their big families, surrounded by spouses, children, grandchildren and other relatives. Being among one's kith and kin, sharing their joys and hardships gave them the desire to go on.
Those days are now gone. The situation has turned around. Today's elderly - by far the best fed ever - can afford years of work-free comfortable retirement. Everything looks great except that they don’t have much company: a spouse if there still is one, a pet in many other cases. Modern family is no longer that tight-knit combat unit fighting for common survival. Children and grandchildren tend to live faraway. As for nieces and nephews, maybe you will see them again in your next incarnation. The nursing professionals, while being fine feeders and curers, just can't be that close emotionally. Modern old age, unless you trust the commercials, can be a hard season of loneliness and isolation.
Those emotional problems, however, are not necessarily caused by a lack of children. The current generation of seniors - who raised the big boomer wave - has produced more babies than needed to replace themselves. What causes problems is modern society itself. The way we live now, you could always end up alone regardless of how many children you have had. Your kids, boomers or generation X/Y/Z, are unlikely to live next door, work in your profession or ask you whom to marry... Life must go on the moment they move out, having been the center of your life for so many years now. Being fruitful can no longer guarantee you a well-surrounded old age.
Descended from a long line of "adapt and survive" masters, humans will try hard to adjust psychologically to the modern setting. Having lots of free time and no one around to talk to is a dangerous combination. When none of your children live nearby, you have to find a different recipe for a contented old age. The new ingredient could be a proactive aptitude for fun, whatever that is. The seniors who have chosen, in their fertile days, hobbies other than raising many juniors could usher in a new era of aging, one in which they seek to fill the remaining years with enjoyable activities. Their adaptive efforts may succeed. The age frontier of fun has been steadily pushed forward over the last two centuries. Childhood as we know it today - with lots of play time - appeared very late in history, not before child labor was outlawed in Western Europe in the 19th century. Next came, no sooner than the 1950s, the teenager. Ever since, the age at which people "grow up" hasn't stopped to rise. Today's 20-somethings are in a state of prolonged adolescence while 30s are increasingly the new 20s, when people used to get serious and settle down. Those in their 40s and 50s also look (Botox?) and act young compared to their parents at the same age. Will they carry on enjoying themselves in their 60s and 70s? As the commercials will tell you, being old is a state of mind. Having fun is best learnt young. The boomer generation, the first ever brought up in affluence, has proved all along that they weren't cast in the puritan mold of their ancestors. An eye for fun is a lasting legacy of the 1960s. How well these boomers - also the first generation unwilling to replace themselves demographically - are going to fare in their last decades will tell us whether old age happiness is possible without many children. Will the Clintons regret someday of having only one child? And Ms. Merkel, of having none? Life's last season may never be the same again after them.
That rosy vision might be just a daydream of reality-denying boomers, a kind of mirage they want to see to escape the emotional desert they are entering. If the high median age world is economically unsustainable or emotionally disappointing, nothing will stop humanity from going back to the old ways. Though not perfect, children will always be the best insurance against loneliness, as blood may really be thicker than water after all. Scared by the depressing images of well-fed but lonely seniors, the future's youth may strike a different balance that brings babies back into their equation. For humanity as a group, it will never be too late for a U-turn; even a few millenniums in the wrong direction would be nothing beside the billions and billions years of life afterward.
There may be no U-turn back to higher fertility, however, if humans succeed in adapting emotionally to a high-median-age world of few children. Technology-enabled economic prosperity is just the necessary condition for mankind's demographic ending; the sufficient condition will always be the choice humans consciously make based on how they feel. The fate of this species depends on our descendants’ feelings, not our present wishes. If humanity keeps going down this low-fertility road in 50, 100, 200, 3,000, 5,000,000… years, it should show that psychologically they are doing fine. They don’t miss the big family enough because, once freed by the robots, they may have never liked it enough in the first place. The fact that the aged Danes, not the youthful Nigerians, rank first in the latest world happiness survey despite their low birthrate shows that these two things may not be mutually exclusive: a country with few children can still be a happy one.

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