By Matt Zajechowski
During the Middle Ages, English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, “Time and tide wait for no man.” Back then, life expectancy was 45 years old, thanks to disease like the bubonic plague, wars, and low infant mortality rates. With the vast, modern improvements in healthcare, hygiene, and diet, populations today can expect much longer, healthy life spans. But living longer has an impact elsewhere, including on the economy and the division of labor and care. Check out The Aging World infographic below to see where older populations are increasing and how they’re affecting the economy.
EDITOR: I’ve not been accepting byline articles lately but am happy to republish Matt’s article and infographic (original here) because it so closely matches my own large collection of healthcare statics and brings the numbers into perspective. Over a century or so, average lifespan has doubled, and so has world population. When I was born in 1948 there were about 2.5 billion people on the planet. Now there are over 7.5 billion poeple. Both of these trends have immense economic and social consequences that politicians seem unprepared to address. This is made worse by the exponentially accelerating rate of tech innovation, which I discuss at the bottom of this post.
In 2012, the global population reached 7 billion, with 8% of those people aged 65 and over; by 2015, the older population rose by 55 million. This means that over 8% of the population is considered not part of the workforce, so fewer taxes are collected and there are fewer contributions to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Aging populations also mean more dependency on basic and social services, such as healthcare, affordable food, and appropriate housing. With finite resources, many countries are feeling squeezed.
According to the graphic, the older population is projected to double to 1.6 billion globally from 2025 to 2050, however, the total population will grow by just 34% over the same period. This means that the balance between those who are able to contribute to a country’s economy and be in good enough health to not rely as heavily on social services will not grow at the same rate as the older generations, leaving an imbalance of resources available.
Adding to the disparity is the question of who will care for and attend to the aging populations. Many middle-age adults find themselves stuck between caring for their children while simultaneously caring for their parents or elderly relatives. Some countries have a worrying outlook for the number of people available to care for the aging population.
In 2015, Japan had the highest ratio of aging population, where 30% or more were 60 years or older. By 2050, the number of countries expected to meet that 30% ratio will balloon to include Canada, nearly all of Europe, much of Asia, and parts of South America. Countries, like Japan, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, the UK, Poland, and Canada, with the least amount of younger generations, face a difficult task of figuring out how to maintain a balance between providing for new generations and taking care of older generations.
Chaucer’s original thought rings true for today’s countries: Time does not wait. As populations around the world continue to grow, so must the options and resources available to maintain healthy, prosperous economies and lifestyles. It is the legacy of each generation to figure out how to care for the previous and set up the next population for success.”
Editor insights on the Immense Economic and Social Consequences
I worry about how our nation can support an aging population when fewer young people are left in the workforce to drive GDP, pay taxes, and fund government. In 1940, the average lifespan was 63.5 years with some 9M Americans receiving Social Security. The ratio of workers to beneficiaries was 159 to 1. By 2010, the average lifespan was 78.3 years, and nearly 39M people received Social Security benefits. The ratio of workers to retirees was 2.9 to 1, and that was BEFORE the first boomer turned 65. This demographic shift supports conservative attacks on Medicare and Social Security, but the political issues go way deeper than aging.
This past January, the United Nations warned attendees of the World Economic Forum of several trends that are coming, and coming A LOT FASTER than most people even imagine. Yes, there’s aging and population growth, but there’s also a shift away from wealth created by workforce labor, to wealth derived from capital investments in technology, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. (See Wealth Inequality, Healthcare, and the Economy.) Jobs at risk are not just the factory workers and also include taxi & truck drivers and knowledge workers in all industries. The UN even said that 50-75% of the entire workforce could soon become unemployable. (See Wall-E and the End of Work.)
The future impact of automation is discussed in When Caregiver Robots Come For Grandma, where a proposed solution is Universal Basic Income. Another solution that the article fails to address is immigration. Allowing younger immigrants to settle here in the U.S. could help address our aging problem, but it would be just a temporary fix.
Nowhere on this website do I discuss how the aging problem is coming in waves that swell with the baby boom, followed 20 years later by an echo boom, and then other waves behind that. Because these sweeping demographic changes, we can expect to see class conflicts between young & old, and rich & poor. The large baby boomer generation is politically active and a powerful voting block, but they also could cause resentment among gen-x and millennials.
Yes, I’m a boomer. My perspectives come from the vantage point of a retired IBM technologist and futurist who tends to see big problems way ahead of most people and seeks to understand the root cause and potential solutions. My greatest concern is with our nation’s political process, which is now so divided and slowing to a crawl, even moving backwards under Conservative leadership. This is just as the pace of policy making needs to accelerate exponentially to match that of tech innovation. I truly hope more of our young people will get politically involved to help shape policy and mechanisms for coping with the aging, population and inequality problems.
What do you think? Please share your insights below.