This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Work Long and Save--The Key to Aging Societies

The lamentation in every society that has an aging population is--how are we going to afford all of these older people? Now, setting aside the youthful bias that somehow people become useless old fogies as they age, societies do have to cope with the very welcome benefits of higher life expectancy, accompanied by a drop in the birth rate that means, in the aggregate, that we are less likely as a species to outrun our resources. Between this week's Economist and today's New York Times, we have stories that provide, in the rough, the answers to the question. The Economist reports on a conference held at the London School of Economics last month that addressed some of these issues [side note--I was at a Conference at LSE last month on the topic of health inequalities and I cannot find any reference to a conference dealing with aging per se--but I digress]. The main point is that workers need to stay in the labor force longer, as I have noted before. Interestingly enough, one suggestion was that the young-old should stay in the labor force longer in order to help care for the old-old. This also means that people continue to pay into health care schemes for longer, thus lowering the tax burden on the younger workers. The alternative is to bring in low-wage immigrants to take those jobs, and that is not always viewed favorably.
Those elderly voters who are tempted to vote for anti-immigrant parties may want to pause; some day soon they may be dependent on the kindness of strangers.
A closely related question is about pensions (whereas the health care costs are separate) and the NY Times reviews the Dutch pension system in which people are paying into a pension plan designed to give them 70% of their salary when they retire.
Imagine a place where pensions were not an ever-deepening quagmire, where the numbers told the whole story and where workers could count on a decent retirement.
Imagine a place where regulators existed to make sure everyone followed the rules. 
That place might just be the Netherlands. And it could provide an example for America’s troubled cities, or for states like Illinois and New Jersey that have promised more in pension benefits than they can deliver. 
Accomplishing this feat — solid workplace pensions for most citizens — isn’t easy. For one thing, it’s expensive. Dutch workers typically sock away nearly 18 percent of their pay, most of it in diversified, professionally run pension funds. That compares with 16.4 percent for American workers, but most of that is for Social Security, which is intended to provide just 40 percent of a middle-class worker’s income in retirement.
The key is an honest and open accounting of how much is needed and where the money is going. This is not an easy thing to accomplish, as the story notes. Furthermore, the goals of the young (investment growth through risk) and the older population (preserving wealth) are not always compatible. But, as the story notes, every country needs to have a public debate about these issues.


  1. so to boil it down to a practical solution ... puch up the retirement age! that's really what it comes to, right? if people stay within the corporate environment, and want those health care systems provided (and for others as well), then they will have to work longer. One issue that falls out of this ... how exactly do older people continue working long hours! The problem is that corporate jobs are high-paced and demanding ... people get chewed up. One solution is that somehow more jobs become part-time, or tasks are organized so that "low key" jobs are maintained for older workers. It is a very human solution, but I cannot think of any company that's doing it. Instead, most companies like mine) dont pay any health care for part-time workers. Therefore, if older people keep working and scale back their hours ... they wind up doing part time jobs on the side (usually for low salaries). There is a vicious intersection between the "corporate world" and the roles of older workers.

    Pete, USA

    1. Yes, we have a problem in the US that no other rich country has--we do not have universal health care. But we do have taxpayer-subsidized health care for the population aged 65 and older, as well as for younger people who are poor. Thus, corporations have an incentive to offload the health costs onto the public sector. But the key factor is keeping people in the labor force longer, even if they are part-time. Keep in mind, as well, that the research is very sparse on actual productivity of older versus younger workers in the corporate (as opposed to manual laborer) world.