How the Global “Gray Wave” Crashes Through Closed Borders

Global Justice columnist Michelle Chen says it'll drown us all if we don't realize how closely linked we are.

By Michelle Chen Sep 29, 2010

Michelle Chen’s Global Justice column explores racial justice through an international lens.

Picture a Sunday afternoon at a city park: a thirty-something Filipina home-nursing aide wheels a white-haired lady down a tree-lined path. The two may seem an accidental pairing, tossed together by globalization, but they have more in common than most onlookers, or even themselves, would think. They may be bound by companionship; they might empathize with each others’ struggles with family separation. But most fundamentally, the two are locked together in a precarious balance of economic and social need that spans multiple generations and continents.

Everyone gets old, but not equally, especially in a highly stratified society like America’s. Socioeconomic and racial gaps among the aging will be amplified as the boomer generation balloons and strains public services, fills up nursing homes and hospitals, and saddles families with new responsibilities. The anxieties raised by the impending "gray wave" have also set the stage for U.S. conservatives to push an agenda of further unraveling the safety net.

But we can’t understand what’s going on with aging in America until we realize that the rest of the world is getting old along with us. While the elderly population has swelled around the world–about one in eight people globally will be aged 65 or older by 2030–poorer countries are hurtling toward an aging explosion in the coming years. According to federal authorities, "Between 2006 and 2030, the number of older people in less developed countries is projected to increase by 140 percent as compared to an increase of 51 percent in more developed countries."

The odd couple at the park embody the multi-generational, transnational challenge these numbers represent–one that tests our collective compassion and political foresight. 

For Americans, and rich countries in general, the sweeping scope of the global aging boom forces questions about the push and pull between labor and migration. As Colin Powell reminded his fellow Republicans last week, the U.S. simply doesn’t have enough workers to sustain current standards of living without replenishing its workforce with immigrants, in sectors ranging from farm work to nursing. And according to a report by RAND, our current anemic "recovery" notwithstanding, the next two decades will likely see "a sharp slowdown" if the aging boom proceeds without newcomers:

Labor force growth between 2010 and 2030 is projected to be 10.5 percent — less than half the growth seen between 1990 and 2010. The slowdown in labor force growth will lead to a corresponding slowdown in U.S. economic growth per capita unless there is an offsetting influence, such as an increase in labor productivity, workforce participation, or immigration.

So theoretically, migration is a rational response to labor imbalances not only on an individual level, but for entire societies. But when folks are hurting from job losses, and political sentiment militates against "outsiders," people stop acting rational. Economic desperation gives employers leverage to intensify exploitation through abuse or wage theft, while native-born workers, pushed to the economic margins, may in turn lash out with self-defeating rage against their immigrant peers. Politicians’ efforts to score populist points by stoking this rage come at the expense of not only social cohesion, but long-term economic health. 

It all leaves immigrants like our Filipina nursing aide struggling toward her aspirations–dreams that benefit us all–while living under a continual racist assault. Here we come to another wrinkle in the aging crisis. Grandma isn’t just using her Medicare benefits to give her aide a steady job; she’s also feeding a massive flow of remittances to transnational families in the Global South. Immigrants transferred hundreds of billions in wealth to developing countries in 2009 alone, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Back in the Philippines, our aide’s own mother plays a different role, caring for grandchildren and stretching every penny of her daughter’s American paycheck. This grandma is entering her autumn years, too, but her horizon is bleaker. Millions like her around the world confront old age virtually alone, without even the hope of anything like Social Security.

In countries with lots of immigrants, then, the remittance economy becomes a sort of shadow Social Security system. An Inter-American Development Bank study of healthcare needs in several Latin American communities found that many households receiving remittances typically supported at least one child or elderly person. In a case study in Mexico, researchers observed, "remittances have been used primarily to provide medical care to the elderly who suffer from chronic diseases and who may require more complicated treatments."

Yet, while remittances provide a vital lifeline, migration can take a toll on caregiving in "exporting" countries. Milagros Villanueva of Caregivers Support Group described in a 2004 NGO report the ironic impact of the labor drain in the Philippines:

The tradition of caregiving for the older persons is being threatened. Younger women, who were the traditional providers of older persons’ care, have been joining the labor force in greater numbers, both in the country and abroad. This points to a decreasing number of caregivers for older persons and children.

In other words, the labor migration that allows people in poorer countries to support seniors economically simultaneously threatens the human support systems that are equally necessary. 

One solution to this dilemma might be to let the Filipina nursing aide reunite her family in the U.S.. But even that wouldn’t matter without a broader overhaul of immigration policy. Under current laws, elderly immigrants, even green-card holders, face harsh restrictions on federal health and welfare programs. Congress may soon even abandon a special class of benefits for elderly refugees.

In an age of metastasizing inequality, those who can’t work are increasingly dependent on the working-age generation. Coping with that burden requires policies that foster equity in both wealthy and poor countries, and a recognition that workers, employers and the state all share collective responsibility toward our elders.

The United Nations Programme on Ageing has urged governments worldwide to revise social policies to meet the needs of older generations–comprehensive health care, decent housing instead of institutions, and social insurance that lets them grow old with dignity, wherever they live.

Yet, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers continue to ignore demographic realities. Our representatives ought to get out of the Beltway and take a trip to the park. No one better represents the challenges and opportunities wrought by the global aging crisis than the elderly lady and the young immigrant helper, ambling together on that tree-lined path. Both of their futures will turn on whether policymakers can move beyond the populist anger of a given electoral cycle and embrace the life cycle that transcends generations and borders.