FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Fear of the Old

by DEAN BAKER

One of the recurring canards in Washington policy debates is that the United States has an aging population that is going to bankrupt our children and grandchildren. According to this tale, an increasingly small number of workers will have to support an ever-growing number of retirees, which will impose an enormous hardship on our descendants. This argument is put forward to justify cutting back Social Security, Medicare and other social protections.

This story makes demonstrably little sense in the context of the U.S. economy. As for the rest of the world, The New York Times reported last week on an effort at Davos to export this story to China and other Asian countries. This is unfortunate, since it makes even less sense in these countries. It’s worth reviewing some simple facts and arithmetic to clear up confusion.

First, aging populations are not new. The United States and other wealthy countries have been seeing aging populations for centuries, as increases in living standards and improvements in medicine have led to longer life expectancies. This has meant a growing population of retirees relative to the number of people working.

The D.C. fearmongers point to projections showing the number of workers per Social Security beneficiary falling from 2.8 his year to just 2.1 in 2035. But this prospect looks considerably less scary when we consider that the number of workers per beneficiary was 5.1 back in 1960. We have seen this number cut almost in half over the last five decades, yet both workers and retirees have seen substantial increases in their standard of living.

The logic here is simple: Productivity growth has allowed workers to produce far more today than they did in 1960. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity is more than three times as high today as it was in 1960. This means that for every hour worked, a worker in 2014 on average produces three times as much by way of goods and services as did a worker in 1960. This is the reason that both workers and retirees can enjoy higher living standards even though there are fewer workers to support each retiree.

We should expect this to continue to be the case. Even if productivity grows at only a 1.5 percent annual rate, the same rate as in the productivity slowdown from 1973 to 1995, output per hour will still be almost 40 percent higher in 2035 than it is today. If productivity grows at the same 2.5 percent rate it sustained from 1995 to 2007, output per hour will be almost 70 percent higher than it is today.

While economists’ track records in predicting productivity growth have been abysmal, the talk of robots displacing massive numbers of workers implies productivity growth that is even more rapid than this 2.5 percent rate. In that case, we will have no problem whatsoever supporting a far higher ratio of retirees to workers than will ever exist in the world. Our problem will be finding work for people to do, since the robots will be doing all the work for us.

In fact, raising demographic fears in the context of China is similar to the robot story. China has seen an incredible increase in its productivity since 1980. As a result, its per capita income is more than 17 times as high today as it was in 1980. This increase has taken place over the working lifetime of those about to retire.

This sort of extraordinary income growth means that the country will have no problem providing these retirees with pensions that are much higher than what they earned during their working life while still leaving future workers with wages that are far higher than their parents’. The gains in productivity swamp the potential impact of a falling ratio of workers to retirees.

The arithmetic on this is straightforward, even with the rapid drop in the ratio of workers to retirees projected for the next two decades. In fact, it would take productivity growth of just 0.4 percent annually over this period to keep after-tax wages constant, assuming that benefits for retirees cost 75 percent of the average after-tax wage. (Note: The average Social Security benefit is 40 percent of the average wage.)

The United States has never seen two decades of such slow productivity growth. And after 2035 the ratio of workers to retirees is projected to remain pretty much constant for the rest of the century while productivity keeps growing. In other words, there is no basis for concern that an aging population will prevent future generations from enjoying much higher standards of living than workers today.

The only circumstances in which an aging population could impose a real burden is if productivity growth ground to a halt. But in that case, the problem would be the failure of productivity to grow, not an older populace. It would take some pretty biased thinking to focus on the latter.

There are in fact real threats to the living standards of our children and grandchildren. At the top of this list is inequality. If the pattern of income growth we have seen over the last three decades continues, with most of the gains going to the richest 1 percent, then most of our children will not fare well. Global warming also poses enormous threats to living standards, as a changing climate will make many areas uninhabitable and possibly lead to severe shortages of food and water in many parts of the world.

These are the sorts of issues that desperately need the public’s and policymakers’ immediate attention. The fact that people are living longer is not a problem.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
March 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Trump is Obama’s Legacy: Will this Break up the Democratic Party?
Eric Draitser
Donald Trump and the Triumph of White Identity Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nothing Was Delivered
Andrew Levine
Ryan’s Choice
Joshua Frank
Global Coal in Freefall, Tar Sands Development Drying Up (Bad News for Keystone XL)
Anthony DiMaggio
Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics
John Wight
London and the Dreary Ritual of Terrorist Attacks
Rob Urie
Boris and Natasha Visit Fantasy Island
Paul Buhle
The CIA and the Intellectuals…Again
David Rosen
Why Did Trump Target Transgender Youth?
Vijay Prashad
Inventing Enemies
Ben Debney
Outrage From the Imperial Playbook
M. Shadee Malaklou
An Open Letter to Duke University’s Class of 2007, About Your Open Letter to Stephen Miller
Michael J. Sainato
Bernie Sanders’ Economic Advisor Shreds Trumponomics
Lawrence Davidson
Moral Failure at the UN
Pete Dolack
World Bank Declares Itself Above the Law
Nicola Perugini - Neve Gordon
Israel’s Human Rights Spies
Patrick Cockburn
From Paris to London: Another City, Another Attack
Ralph Nader
Reason and Justice Address Realities
Ramzy Baroud
‘Decolonizing the Mind’: Using Hollywood Celebrities to Validate Islam
Colin Todhunter
Monsanto in India: The Sacred and the Profane
Louisa Willcox
Grizzlies Under the Endangered Species Act: How Have They Fared?
Norman Pollack
Militarization of American Fascism: Trump the Usurper
Pepe Escobar
North Korea: The Real Serious Options on the Table
Brian Cloughley
“These Things Are Done”: Eavesdropping on Trump
Sheldon Richman
You Can’t Blame Trump’s Military Budget on NATO
Carol Wolman
Trump vs the People: a Psychiatrist’s Analysis
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Marines to Kill Desert Tortoises
Stanley L. Cohen
The White House . . . Denial and Cover-ups
Farhang Jahanpour
America’s Woes, Europe’s Responsibilities
Joseph Natoli
March Madness Outside the Basketball Court
Bill Willers
Volunteerism; Charisma; the Ivy League Stranglehold: a Very Brief Trilogy
Bruce Mastron
Slaughtered Arabs Don’t Count
Pauline Murphy
Unburied Truth: Exposing the Church’s Iron Chains on Ireland
Ayesha Khan
The Headscarf is Not an Islamic Compulsion
Ron Jacobs
Music is Love, Music is Politics
Christopher Brauchli
Prisoners as Captive Customers
Robert Koehler
The Mosque That Disappeared
Franklin Lamb
Update from Madaya
Dan Bacher
Federal Scientists Find Delta Tunnels Plan Will Devastate Salmon
Barbara Nimri Aziz
The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?
Louis Proyect
What Caused the Holodomor?
Max Mastellone
Seeking Left Unity Through a Definition of Progressivism
Charles R. Larson
Review: David Bellos’s “Novel of the Century: the Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables”
David Yearsley
Ear of Darkness: the Soundtracks of Steve Bannon’s Films
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail