Table of Contents
Profile: Little People of America
We have all heard of the legendary 33-inch-tall circus performer, Tom Thumb. Unlike this famous performer, most midgets and dwarfs receive no fanfare; instead, they have significant social problems. As a result, the Little People of America (LPA) was established in 1957 to meet the special needs of our nation's little people.
Weinberg (1968) asked a number of members what they had gained through association with the LPA. One replied, "I have learned not to be afraid of other people because they are bigger than you." Another answered, "Friends, happiness and a million dollars worth of living."
Status Inconsistency: Janitors and Tenants
Sociologist Ray Gold interviewed apartment building janitors in Chicago. Since these janitors are unionized, they have relatively good wages and are eligible for a rent-free apartment. But like people in most occupations, janitors have an image ... in this case, unfavorable. They are viewed by tenants and the public as ignorant, lazy and dirty. In addition, it is assumed that anyone, even if he or she has failed at everything else, can be a janitor. These stereotypes are reinforced by the menial tasks performed by janitors (such as emptying the garbage), the dirty clothes they wear and the fact that many of them are foreign-born.
These stereotypes make the janitor’s job difficult since social relationships with the tenants are important. While making efforts to establish good relations with the tenants, janitors are well aware that their jobs are held in low esteem. Even people who are viewed as good tenants maintain a social distance from janitors. The janitors in Gold’s study commented on the jealousy expressed by tenants whenever janitors tried to better themselves. A raise in pay, a new automobile or new furnishings in the janitor’s apartment lead to unkind remarks and sarcasm. And live-in janitors are never able to get away from these attitudes since the building is their home.
Professional ethics are something we associate with lawyers and psychiatrists, but Gold found that janitors have them as well. They frequently know a tenant’s personal secrets and they must learn proper procedures for easing gracefully out of delicate situations.
Both the professional behavior and the substantial income of janitors contradict tenant’s views of them as servants. But this conceptual conflict remains unresolved: middle-class tenants depend on janitors but do not regard the job as a middle-class occupation. Workshops for janitors and custodians, often held on college campuses, are furthering the janitors’ image of themselves as professionals. Yet there is little indication that tenants’ image of janitors is also improving.
Comparison of Perspectives on Stratification
SuperZIPs and the Cultural Bubble
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Is There a Culture of Poverty?
Anthropologist Oscar Lewis, in several publications based on research conducted among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, identified what he called the culture of poverty. Lewis believes that poverty has a strong effect on family life and leaves a negative mark that upward mobility may not erase. In other words, the implication of Lewis’s culture of poverty is that the poor will continue to exhibit their deviant lifestyle — living for today, not planning for the future, having no enduring commitment to marriage, lacking a work ethic and so forth — even when they move out of the slums. Lewis stresses the inevitability of living out the culture of poverty regardless of later events. (See Oscar Lewis, Five Families, New York: Basic Books, 1959.; Lewis, La Vida, New York: Random House, 1965; Lewis, “The Culture of Poverty,” Scientific American, 215(October 1966):1925.) This argument has been widely employed to justify antipoverty programs designed to bring middle-class virtues to the children of the poor. It is also used to discourage giving poor people control over programs aimed at assisting them.
To say that Lewis and similar thinkers have touched off a controversy is an understatement. Critics argue that Lewis sought out exotic, pathological behavior. He ignored behavior indicating that even among the poor, most people live fairly conventionally and strive to achieve goals similar to those of the middle class. For example, archeologists at the University of Arizona have monitored trends in food utilization by examining household refuse (this is an example of unobtrusive measures) and found that low-income households went further than middle-class households in choosing less-expensive items and wasted even less. William Ryan contends that lack of money is the cause of poor people’s problems and of any discrepancies in behavior — not inherent disabilities or aftereffects of child-rearing practices. It is unfair, according to Ryan, to blame the poor for their lack of money, low educational levels, poor health and low-paying jobs. (See Ryan, Blaming the Victim (rev ed), NY: Random House, 1976.)
In the debate over a culture of poverty, policymakers neglect to make a distinction between culture and subculture. The poor in the US do not make up a culture unto themselves; they are one segment of the larger American culture. The behavioral patterns of the poor that arise out of their low-income status may constitute a subculture but poor people still share most of the larger society’s norms and values. Social planners must develop fresh initiatives that recognize these similarities and yet respect the distinctive qualities of the subculture.
Since the land area is limited in Hong Kong,
many slums are settled on rooftops.
The Hunger Crisis in American Universities
It’s difficult to track just how many college students are in dire need, but new data from the country’s largest emergency food service network suggests that the number is at least in the millions. Feeding America’s 2014 Hunger in America report estimates that roughly 10% of its 46.5 million adult clients are currently students, including about two million people who are attending school full-time. Nearly one-third of those surveyed—30.5%—report that they’ve had to choose between paying for food and covering educational expenses at some point in the last year.
Feeding America, a network of some 46,000 emergency food service agencies in the United States, releases its Hunger in America report once every four years. This latest iteration of the report, which is based on a survey of more than 60,000 Feeding America clients, is the first to include data about college students in need of emergency food services. The new research suggests that America’s chronic hunger emergency has not spared institutes of higher learning.
As low-income populations have gone to college and food insecurity has risen up to swallow the lower rungs of the middle class, hunger has spread across America’s university campuses like never before. In some places, it’s practically a pandemic: At Western Oregon University, 59% of the student body is food insecure, according to researchers from Oregon State University (OSU). A 2011 survey [PDF] of the City University of New York (CUNY) found that 39.2% of the university system’s quarter of a million undergraduates had experienced food insecurity at some time in the past year.
As food insecurity rose, it also began to affect households that had never experienced it before. Data published by Feeding America in April suggests that 27% of food insecure people don’t qualify for food stamps because their incomes are too high. And even as food insecurity continued to climb, so did college enrollment rates, in part because college is seen as a stepping stone to economic security. As low-income populations have gone to college and food insecurity has risen up to swallow the lower rungs of the middle class, hunger has spread across America’s university campuses like never before. In some places, it’s practically a pandemic.
US Poverty Stats
Try your skills at playing SPENT. (It's not easy being poor!)
Racial and Ethnic Identity
The American Anthropological Association produced a short video providing an overview of how prevailing ideas in science, government and culture intersected throughout history to shape American concept of race today: The Story of Race (8:25), American Anthropological Association, July 13, 2009.
The growing diversity of the paid labor force, especially in Europe and North America, is well documented. What impact will this diversity have on decision making within organizations? How does cultural diversity affect the performance of small groups in the workplace? Since policies and procedures are typically developed in meetings of relatively modest size, small-group research can be especially useful in helping us understand the impact of diversity within organizations.
In many experimental studies, a small group is created and then assigned a task or problem to resolve. The overall conclusion of such research is that heterogeneous small groups (including culturally diverse groups) produce solutions of higher quality than do homogeneous groups. In fact, as a group’s composition becomes more diverse, additional alternatives are proposed that enhance the quality of decision making. The likelihood that a group will offer many ideas and proposals is particularly attractive in light of the current demands on many organizations to be more innovative and creative.
This general finding about the advantages of diversity in small groups has been tempered by the fact that such groups often fail to benefit from racial and ethnic minorities. Researchers report that minorities are less active participants within small groups and are slightly less committed to the group’s efforts than are other members.
For example, one Canadian study focused on 45 small groups in which most minority participants were from Asian backgrounds. In 34 of the 45 groups (76%), the member who contributed least often was a minority group member. Such studies raise two sobering questions for organizations: How do the dynamics of small groups impede minority participation? and How can organizations assist and benefit from employees who may be reluctant to participate in small-group decision making?
Viewed from a conflict perspective, the apparently subordinate role of racial and ethnic minorities within small groups, like the subordinate role of females in conversations with males, reminds us that the power relations of the larger society influence members of small groups within an organization. So long as inequality based on gender, race, and ethnicity is evident throughout our society, it will influence people’s self-confidence and their ability to exercise leadership within a small group.
Opinions on Welfare Linked to Racial Views
Political scientist Martin Gilens has found that the public’s opposition to welfare is closely correlated with racial views. Analyzing data from a national telephone survey on race and politics, Gilens found that people who answered yes to a question asking whether “blacks are lazy” were very likely to oppose welfare. An affirmative answer to that question was more closely connected to a dislike of welfare than was the view that the poor in general are lazy or that big government programs are counterproductive. Whites hold similar views of comparably described black and white welfare mothers, but their negative views of black welfare mothers are more politically potent: that is, they generate greater opposition to welfare than do comparable views of white welfare mothers.
Previous research had suggested that welfare programs are vulnerable because middle-income voters, acting purely in their own interests, see no reason to support them. Gilens, however, found that racial views were more highly correlated than family income with views on welfare. Welfare, therefore, has become a coded issue that activates in whites negative views of African Americans without explicitly raising the race card.
Gilens suggests that a similar subterranean discourse on race is emerging in discussions of crime and drug use as well. While blacks represent only 37% of welfare recipients, perceptions of black welfare mothers dominate whites’ evaluations of welfare and their preferences with respect to welfare expenditures. Therefore, Gilens sees the unspoken agenda of racial imagery as more important in shaping public understanding of welfare than explicit debates over welfare reform that are cast in race-neutral language.
These attitudes are not lost on the welfare recipients themselves. Robin Jarrett examined the welfare stigma felt among low-income African American single mothers. Interviewing 82 low-income women, Jarrett drew upon the interactionist perspective in an effort to learn how stigmatization operates in the lives of AFDC recipients. Women in the study had come to be labeled as deviant because of their welfare receipts and single-parent status. Both factors were used as evidence that unmarried recipients devalue conventional norms of economic independence and family life. Residence in allegedly deviant ghetto neighborhoods was further evidence of deviant values. Prominent actors in the labeling process, according to the women, included the media, welfare staff and employers. Recipients felt that once they were identified as deviants, they were singled out for differential treatment. They were viewed as reluctant workers and irresponsible parents. Jarrett sees implications of her findings for how the welfare recipient is treated, but she also noted earlier research (Horan and Austin, 1974) that showed that welfare rights organizations can do a great deal in helping the women to resist the labeling and to develop positive feelings of self-worth.
The Complexity of Racial and Ethnic Identity
Race and ethnicity are not static, biological categories. They are very fluid and socially constructed. The diversity of the US today has made it more difficult for any people to view themselves clearly on the racial and ethnic landscape. Obviously, the reason is that this landscape, as we have seen, is not naturally but socially constructed and is therefore subject to change and to different interpretations. While our focus is on the US, every nation faces the same dilemmas.
Within little more than a generation we have witnessed changes in labeling subordinate groups from Negroes to Blacks to African Americans, from American Indians to native Americans or native people. However, more native Americans prefer the use of their tribal name, such as Seminole, instead of a collective label. The old 1950s statistical term of people with a Spanish surname has long been discarded, yet there is disagreement over a new term: Latino or Hispanic. As with native Americans, Hispanic Americans tend to avoid such global terms and prefer the use of their native names, such as Puerto Ricans or Cubans. People of Mexican ancestry indicate preferences for a variety of names, such as Chicano, Mexican American or simply Mexican.
Some advocates for racial and ethnic groups consider names a very important issue with great social significance. If nothing else, others argue, changes in names reflect people taking over the power to name themselves. Still others see this as a nonissue, or as editor Anna Maria Arias of Hispanic magazine termed the debate, “It’s stupid. There are more important issues we should be talking about.”
In the US and other multiracial, multiethnic societies, panethnicity has emerged. Panethnicity is the development of solidarity among ethnic subgroups. The coalition of tribal groups as native Americans or American Indians to confront outside forces, notably the federal government, is one example of panethnicity. Hispanic/Latinos and Asian Americans are other examples of panethnicity.
Is panethnicity a convenient label for outsiders or is it a term that reflects a mutual identity? Certainly many people are unable or unwilling to recognize ethnic differences and prefer umbrella terms like Asian Americans. For some small groups, combining with others is emerging as a useful way to make themselves heard, but there is always a fear that their own distinctive culture will become submerged. While many Hispanics share the Spanish language and many are united by Roman Catholicism, only one in four native-born people of Mexican, Puerto Rican or Cuban descent prefers a panethnic label over nationality or ethnic identity. Yet the growth of a variety of panethnic associations among many groups, including Hispanics, continues in the 1990s.
There is even less agreement about how to identify oneself in racially conscious America if one is of mixed ancestry. Roberto Chong, who immigrated to the US, has a Chinese father and a Peruvian mother. He considers himself Hispanic, but others view him as Asian or Latino Asian-American. Few intermarriages exist in America and social attitudes discourage them, but such unions are on the increase. Interracial marriages have climbed from 44,598 in 1970 to 54,251 in 1994 and interracial births doubled from 63,700 in 1978 to 133,200 in 1992. In a race-conscious society, how are we going to respond to these multiracial children? As the mother of one such child, Hannah Spangler, noted, how is she to complete the school form as Hannah starts first grade in Washington, DC? Hannah’s father is White and her mother is half black and half Japanese. We may be slowly recognizing that the US is a multiracial society, but we are not prepared to respond to such a society.
Add to this cultural mix the many peoples with clear social identities who are not yet generally recognized in the US. Arabs are a rapidly growing segment whose identity is heavily subject to stereotypes or, at best, is still ambiguous. Haitians and Jamaicans affirm they are black but rarely accept the identity of African Americans. Brazilians, who speak Portuguese, often object to being called Hispanic because of that term’s association with Spain. Similarly, there are white Hispanics and non-white Hispanics, some of the latter being black, and others, like Robert Chong, Asian.
As the future of African American people in the US unfolds, one element of the population complicating racial identity, generally unnoticed thus far, may move into prominence. An ever-growing proportion of the black population consists of people of foreign birth. In the 1980 census, 816,000 foreign-born blacks were counted, or 3.1% of the black population, the highest every recorded. Yet by 1994, the number had nearly doubled to 1,596,000, which constituted 5.1% of the black population. Fully 10% of the foreign-born population arrived in the preceding four years with the primary sources of the immigration being the island nations of the Caribbean. The numbers are expected to increase, as is the proportion of the African-American population that is foreign born. Diversity exists to a significant degree within the black community today, reaffirming the notion that race is socially constructed.
Another challenge to identify is marginality, which refers to the status of being between two cultures, as in the case of an individual whose mother is a Jew and whose father is a Christian. Incomplete assimilation, as in a Korean woman’s migrating to the US, also results in marginality. While she may take on the characteristics of her new host society, she may not be fully accepted and may therefore feel neither Korean nor American. The marginal person finds himself or herself being perceived differently in different environments, with varying expectations. In a family circle, the marginal person’s ethnic heritage is clear, but in the workplace different labels may be used to identify this person.
As we seek to better understand diversity in the US, we must be mindful that ethnic and racial labels are just that, labels that have been socially constructed. Yet these social constructs can have a powerful impact, whether self-applied or applied by others.
The New Immigrants
Not since 1910, at the peak of this century's great wave of immigration, has the ratio of newcomers to the US been as high. In particular, those new immigrants who are remaining in the New York City metropolitan area are more diverse, have changed traditional settlement patterns and have not followed the traditional politics of the earlier immigrants. Classic old ethnic neighborhoods that had successfully resisted change for half a century now belong to no one and to everyone. They are a clashing, colorful, polyglot, multiethnic collection of micro-communities whose members sometimes come together on neutral ground.
The earlier wave of immigrants was largely composed of Italians, Jews, Irish, Polish and German ethnics, but the new wave includes Koreans, Hmong, Chinese, Ecuadorians and other Latin and South Americans, Indians, various Middle Easterners, West Indians and Africans from numerous countries. They are oftentimes moving into the same ethnic neighborhoods that housed the earlier immigrants but the communities are no longer as homogeneous as they once were. For example, in one Queens elementary school, Spanish- speaking children leave for special instruction with a Spanish-speaking teacher in their academic subjects, and in the afternoon, the Korean and Chinese children are pulled out of the classroom to study in Korean and Chinese. While those children are gone, other teachers rotate in the class to help those who speak Arabic, Urdu, Bengali and other languages.
The new wave of immigrants has altered traditional settlement patterns. Earlier immigrants settled in relatively homogeneous inner city communities and did not venture to the suburbs until their second or their generation. However, many new immigrants are moving directly to the suburbs surrounding New York City and bypassing the inner city enclaves. In addition, these new immigrants are breaking the stereotypes of being poor, uneducated, huddled masses. Many of the new immigrants are economically diverse, equipped with graduate degrees and work visas, and gifted in science and technology. In one middle-class New Jersey suburb of New York City, the Asian population climbed to 10% from 1% since 1980. Almost 10% of the children in the school system are not native speakers of English - 41 languages are represented in the community, including 11 from the Indian subcontinent and 4 from China and Taiwan.
One consequence of the changing characteristics of the immigrants and their settlement patterns has been in the area of community politics. Since the new immigrants are more fractured and diverse, it has been more difficult for them to unite into a political movement. For example, Dominicans comprise roughly 6% of the New York City population, West Indians about 8%, Chinese about 4%. Unifying these and many other groups is a politician's nightmare. Nevertheless, coalitions are forming that are spanning ethnic divides, as the new immigrants realize that they share common problems in the changing political landscape.
What Part of Legal Immigration Don't You Understand?
Sexism in Languages: English and Japanese
Nancy Henley, Mykol Hamilton and Barrie Thorne suggest that the sexist bias of the English language takes three principal forms: “It ignores, it defines, it deprecates.”
Ignoring: English ignores females by favoring the masculine form for all generic uses, as in the sentence: “Each entrant in the competition should do his best.” According to the rules of English grammar, it is incorrect to use “their best” as the singular form in the previous sentence. Moreover, usage of the “he or she” form (“Each entrant in the competition should do his or her best”) is often attacked as being clumsy. Nevertheless, feminists insist that common use of male forms as generic makes women and girls invisible and implicitly suggests that maleness and masculine values are the standard for humanity and normality. For this reason, there has been resistance to the use of terms like mailman, policeman and fireman to represent the men and women who perform these occupations.
Defining: In the view of Henley and her colleagues, “language both reflects and helps maintain women’s secondary status in our society, by defining her and her ‘place.’" The power to define through naming is especially significant in this process. Married women traditionally lose their own names and take their husbands’, while children generally take the names of their fathers and not their mothers. These traditions of naming reflect western legal traditions under which children were viewed as the property of their fathers and married women as the property of their husbands. The view of females as possessions is also evident in the practice of using female names and pronouns to refer to material possessions such as cars, machines and ships.
Deprecating: There are clear differences in the words that are applied to male and female things that reflect men’s dominant position in English-speaking societies. For example, women’s work may be patronized as pretty or nice, whereas men’s work is more often honored as masterful or brilliant. In many instances, a woman’s occupation or profession is trivialized with the feminine ending –ess or –ette; thus, even a distinguished writer may be given a second-class status as a poetess or an authoress. In a clear manifestation of sexism, terms of sexual insult in the English language are applied overwhelmingly to women. One researcher found 220 terms for a sexually promiscuous woman but only 22 for a sexually promiscuous man.
While the English language ignores, defines and deprecates females, the same is true of languages around the world. Indeed, in mid-1993, Japan’s labor minister challenged the society’s traditional practice of depicting women in government documents as always carrying brooms. The official term for women, fujin, is represented by two characters that literally mean female person carrying broom (Rafferty, 1993).
The expressions commonly used by girls and boys in Japan underscore gender differences. A boy can refer to himself by using the word boku, which means I. But a girl cannot assert her existence and identity that boldly and easily; she must instead refer to herself with the pronoun watashi. This term is viewed as more polite and can be used by either sex. Similarly, a boy can end a sentence assertively by stating Samui yo, “It’s cold, I say!” But a girl is expected to say Sumui wa, “It’s cold, don’t you think?” For girls, proper usage dictates ending with a gentle question rather than a strong declaration.
Ellen Rudolph, a photographer from the US who lives in Tokyo, reports that Japanese parents and teachers serve as vigilant linguistic police who remind children to use only those forms of speech deemed appropriate for their sex. Girls who violate these gender codes are told Onnanoko na no ni, which means “You’re a girl, don’t forget.”
Reverse Socialization and Gender Roles
Conventionally, social scientists examine how parents create gender roles for children from birth through adolescence. Lawrence Ganong and Marilyn Coleman have found that children can also affect their parents’ gender roles. They administered the Bem Sex Role Inventory to 306 parents (153 couples) who had daughters only (N=41), sons only (N=41), or an equal number of sons and daughters (N=71).
Fathers with sons had lower femininity scores than fathers with daughters only. Mothers with sons were significantly more feminine than those with daughters only. These results do not support the common-sense expectation that socializing daughters would have a feminizing effect on parents and that socializing sons would have a masculinizing effect.
Ganong and Coleman contend that parents become more sex-typed (that is, fathers become more masculine than feminine and mothers more feminine than masculine). Parents seem to respond to sons by becoming clearer role models of masculinity and femininity. Daughters, on the other hand, have no such effect because there is relatively less concern for teaching them a rigid gender role. The study supports yet another interactionist dimension to gender roles, that the child-parent relationship is mutually influential.
The interactionist perspective on gender stratification often examines the micro-level of everyday behavior. Daphne Spain’s Gendered Spaces (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1992) is an example of such an approach.
After dinner, the women gather in one group, perhaps in the kitchen, while the men sit together elsewhere in the house, perhaps watching a televised sporting event. Is this an accurate picture of day-to-day social life in the US? According to architect Daphne Spain, it certainly is. Indeed, the physical separation of men and women has been common — whether in the Mongolian ger (or hut), the longhouses of the Iroquois tribes of North America or recreational facilities on contemporary college campuses.
Spain notes that gendered spaces in workplaces in the US reflect our society’s traditional division of labor into men’s work and women’s work. But, as with historic patterns of racial segregation, the spatial segregation of women and men does not lead to separate but equal status. Instead, it serves to reinforce the dominant position of men in the workplace in terms of financial rewards, status and power.
Drawing on her own research and on studies in a variety of disciplines, Spain concludes that:
In summary, Spain found that “women typically engage in highly visible work — to colleagues, clients and supervisors — subject to repeated interruptions.” Viewed from an interactionist perspective, these spatial conditions reflect and reinforce women’s subordinate status relative to men. The closed doors of men’s offices in managerial and professional jobs not only protect their privacy and limit other employees’ access to knowledge, they also symbolize men’s dominant position in the workplace.
In 1989 a controversy erupted concerning the role of women in corporate America. The debate followed a review about the management styles of men and women. Felice Schwartz, the president and founder of Catalyst, a women’s business research group, makes her case in the respected Harvard Business Review in “Management Women and the New Facts of Life” (67(January–February 1989):65–76). Schwartz argues that women managers are different because many eventually have children and leave or cut back on work commitments while their children are young. Without a strategy for handling these women, she says companies pay a high price. Businesses, according to Schwartz, do not receive a full return on their investment in training some women for top jobs if the women quit or are unable to put in long hours after they become mothers.
In suggesting ways to reduce these costs, Schwartz proposes an idea quite unacceptable to feminists. She says executives should think of female managers as fitting into two broad categories. Career primary women who put work first would be identified early and groomed for top-level positions alongside ambitious men. At the same time, executives would recognize that career and family women can also be valuable assets. To allow them to spend more time at home, companies would offer more options like flexible hours and part-time jobs. Although she did not use the term, mommy track quickly became the buzzword to describe Schwartz’s career and family track.
A common objection to Schwartz’s position is that it may only reinforce corporate and social prejudices about women. “My fear is that if only women take this option, they won’t move up the career ladder, and they have a guaranteed position as the primary parent,” says University of Texas psychologist Lucia A. Gilbert. “We’ll be back where we were in the ‘60s.”
Feminization of the Banking Industry
Sociologist Brian Rich looks at the growth of women’s participation in the banking industry between 1940 and 1980. Drawing upon census and industry regulatory data, he examines the feminization process, which he defines as women’s proportional gains in a paid employment category. He notes that the banking workforce went from 30% female in 1940 to over 70% female in 1980.
To consider the reason for this dramatic shift, he considers three models to explain the process: human capital, the duel labor market and gender queuing. The human capital model would explain the change in sex composition of the banking labor force as the result of new job-to-worker matches. The substitution of female for male workers occurs when skill and other productivity characteristics of the jobs change in ways that favor the human capital stocks women offer over those offered by men. The dual labor market model would see the banking industry as becoming less desirable and therefore more likely to be filled by women, who are at a disadvantage in competing against men for more desirable jobs.
The gender-queuing explanation would argue that employers came to prefer women in the labor force because of qualities that differentiate them from men, and that, at the same time, women were more likely to seek out those jobs. While similar to the dual labor market approach, queuing portrays the process as one in which the participants, men and women, play a more active role, rather than one in which changes comes from above (the banking industry).
The New American Pocketbook
An Aging World
Never before in human history has our planet contained so many older people or such a large percentage of them. The world is facing dramatic shifts in the economic, demographic and social fabric of its societies. Women just about everywhere are having fewer kids and having them later in life. In 1970 the average woman on the planet gave birth to 4.7 children in her lifetime. By 2011 that number had dropped to 2.5. Even in the world’s most fecund region, sub-Saharan Africa, the fertility rate has fallen from 6.7 to 4.9 ... and births among women under 20 dropped 20% in the first decade of the new millennium. The combination of falling birthrates and longer life expectancies also means the world is rapidly adding wrinkles. In 1980 the median age was 23; by 2050, according to the UN, it will be 38. In 1970 about half of the world’s population was younger than 20; by 2011 that figure had dropped to a little more than one-third, and the UN predicts it will be closer to one-quarter by mid-century. Meanwhile, the number of people older than 65 increased from 5% to 9% between 1970 and 2011, and will climb to 20% by 2050. Despite the global population being about 2 billion higher, the absolute number of young people at mid-century will be no larger than today. The world is about to get a lot older very fast.
Aging populations pose some real challenges, especially for industries that provide services either to the young or the old. About 5% of global gross domestic product is spent on education, for example; dwindling numbers of children could mean a lot of teachers will be out of work. Expenditures on the old, meanwhile, are sure to skyrocket. Pension spending in the European Union currently equals about 12.5% of GDP. As the region’s 65-plus population increases from a fifth to a third, either those payments will rise or old age will get considerably less comfortable. Supporting the aged is going to be a particular problem for developing countries, such as China, that have traditionally relied on families to look after their old and infirm. The burden on children may become unbearable without considerably expanded safety nets.
Tom Perls, the world-renowned geriatrician at Harvard Medical School, is adamant in his assertion that the entire concept of aging is being redefined. Society must be prepared to tackle a dramatic change in life expectancy. Already, the burden of supporting aging populations with a shrinking pool of able-bodied workers threatens the solvency of governments in advanced economies ... and some are handling the burden better than others. For example, countries such as Denmark have lower expenditures on their overall health care because they have invested in an efficient, accessible home care delivery system that keeps people out of more expensive long-term care and hospital beds.
The New American Demographics
The Pew Research Center's report, The Next America, highlights dramatic demographic changes. See also this video about the report. PRRI also has a new report out that highlights the ways in which changing demographics have engendered fears of cultural displacement among segments of the dominant white population.