For the last few years, boomers have been complaining about young people walking slowly or erratically while glued to their phones. Young people can cheer up. In a few years today’s millennials and Gen Xers will be ones complaining about many of the 70 million aging baby boomers walking slowly or erratically and getting in their way. The oldest boomers are now 72 years old, and in about a decade, they'll be getting seriously old — 10,000 of them every day.
Imagine — untold millions of them, clogging the exits of the subways, blocking sidewalks and bike lanes with their walkers and mobility devices. Millions of drivers like my late mom, who would drive slowly down the middle of two lanes because it scared her when people passed her.
That's what's happening in Japan right now, where a fifth of the population is over 70 years old. Young people have a word for it, rougai, which some define as "the harm inflicted on Japan by its elderly." There are dozens of YouTube videos of old people jamming subway doors open, shoplifting and causing trouble. It sounds awful, but this is a thing there now. According to Leo Lewis in a paywalled article in the Financial Times,
Rougai, in the various mouths of its users, can be the stubborn idiocy of a senior executive who cannot use a computer but decries younger staff as inferior to previous generations. It is shoplifting sprees by retirees. It is superannuated politicians. It is elderly women hectoring young mothers in the street with unsolicited child-rearing advice. It is a snaking queue of septuagenarians dithering over touchscreen ticket machines. It is 90-year-olds causing pile-ups by driving their cars the wrong way up motorways.
I will shamefully admit to having occasional feelings of rougai in the bank, when some old person is taking an hour to pay all their bills at the teller window, or in the parking lot when someone is taking forever to park their car, or in the bike lanes or on the sidewalks, now clogged with people pushing walkers or driving mobility devices, or in the road, where so many drive like my mom and dad did.
Lewis notes that "generational friction is nothing new to humanity, nor special to Japan, but rougai seems to reflect a Japan-specific feeling that the young are being outnumbered by the old."
Meanwhile, in 2029...
You can't drive forever. (Photo: Mick Tinbergen/Wikipedia)
Imagine 10 years from now in 2029, when North America is like that. When the youngest baby boomers turn 65, it will mean that for the first time, people over 65 will comprise a whopping 20 percent of the population. (Imagine, a fifth of the nation telling you to get off their lawn.)
If they're having these kinds of problems in Japan — where there's a strong tradition of respect for the elderly and a social safety net — what's going to happen in North America if we don't start planning for this inevitable demographic shift? Still focused on Japan, Lewis concludes:
There is no doubt that the country’s demographics will confront its society with an ever more irritating, complex and saddening list of problems. The burden of this will be immense and will surely fall most heavily on the generation that has shared and bemoaned the footage of the Nagoya door-stopper. They know what trouble is coming; at least they have granted themselves the empowerment that comes with giving it a name.
The crisis we face in North America is likely going to be far worse, and there's going to be rougai everywhere. We don't have the transit, the housing, and in many cities we don't even have sidewalks. We have a much higher proportion of women who work and aren't around to take care of parents. So far, the only answer anyone seems able to come up with is self-driving cars, but we're going to have to do a lot better, and a lot more, than that.