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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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Is An Aging Population Worse Than a Young Population?

Yesterday I commented on a genuinely biased story in the NYTimes about the population explosion, in which the concluding point of the story seemed to be that the world needs more babies to counter the awful prospect of aging. That led Duane Miller to ask about readily available summaries of the global aging situation, especially in terms of its rapidity. If you want a straightforward look at the percentage of the population that is aged 65 and older in each country of the world, then the obvious choice is the Population Reference Bureau. The United Nations Population Division has a few more aging related variables, including projections out to 2050, although their summary of data refers to people ages 60 and older.

Part of the problem when thinking about the older population is that public policy only matters in terms of the costs of older people. If people are still in the labor force and are still healthy, then their age doesn't really matter. They don't cost society any more than younger people. And remember, young people are not free. Children have to be fed and clothed and educated and trained to be productive members of society if they are, in fact, going to contribute more to the economy than the older people. None of that is free. The real problem with "modern" aging is that we have had a half century or so in which people have been led to believe that they deserve to retire at a relatively young age at someone else's expense. This is the essence of the system of intergenerational transfers or PAYGO (pay as you go) systems that comprise social security and health schemes in most of the richer countries of the world. We have, in fact, passed through a brief moment in human history when the age transition allowed that possibility. We cannot rewind the clock and relive the age transition. Society has to change the way it thinks about aging. A recent article in the Journal of the Economics of Ageing lays out some of the issues:
The consequences of the changing age structure for the overall economic development depend on the design of the economic life cycle, i.e. the age pattern of economic activities such as consumption, the generation of labour income and saving. A typical characteristic of the life cycle in modern societies are phases of economic dependency at the beginning and end of life, in which consumption exceeds the income generated through one’s own labour input. In childhood and retirement at least part of consumption has to be covered through the reallocation of resources in form of transfers and asset accumulation. A shift in the age structure of the population - as a consequence of the ageing process - requires an adjustment of the age reallocation system.
Business as usual won't cut it. And, as Paul Ehrlich correctly pointed out in the video that I commented on yesterday, we cannot recklessly go around promoting a higher birth rate to try to counteract population aging. That will lead to disaster of many kinds. As I have said before--in one of the most popular of my blog posts, and a follow-up to that--the key to successful aging both as individuals and societies is to work long and save. This isn't easy, but success of any kind rarely is. Charles Dickens put the right words in the mouth of Mr. Bagnet in Bleak House: "Discipline must be maintained!"

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