The best thing in the new edition of World Watch magazine is the article by Martha Farnsworth Riche called “Low Fertility and Sustainability.” (pdf) As birthrates slow in the Northwest and across the industrial world, many observers are worrying about aging populations. As the baby boom ages, there will be more elders per worker than ever before. That will put strains on public retirement and health care financing.

Riche, a former director of the Census Bureau, sheds considerable light on this legitimate, but much overblown, challenge. (We touched on the issue in the Northwest here.)

One key idea she discusses is unlocking retirement ages. The retire-at-65 pattern was established when lifespans were 67 to 69 years. As lifespans stretch toward 80 years and beyond, and as seniors’ health during those years keeps improving, there’s little reason to retire so soon. There is a political problem posed by aging populations (raising the retirement age), but it’s not an economic or cultural or social or mathematical problem.

One final point, not from Riche: the number of dependents (including children and seniors) per worker was about as high during the height of the baby boom as it will be during the boomers’ retirement, in both the United States and Canada. All societies managed it then, during the childhood of the baby boom generation, when incomes were far lower. There’s no reason we can’t manage it again.