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 12th (it came out in 2015), 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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Monday, March 26, 2018

US Population Ages as the Pig is Still in the Python

As I note in Chapter 8 of my text (the chapter on the age transition), the baby boom generation has long been characterized as a pig in a python--a bulge in the population age structure that starts at one end (the youngest ages--or the python's mouth) and works its way to the to other end (the oldest ages--the python's rear extremities). This came up a couple of weeks ago in an NPR interview with Ronald Lee at UC, Berkeley, who is a Past President of the Population Association of America and someone I've known and admired for a long time. Now I admit that I missed the on-air interview, and have to thank the PAA for calling it to our attention. Professor Lee was contacted to comment on the new population projections put out by the U.S. Census Bureau, which highlighted--among other things--the continued aging of the American population. Here are some of the main points--all of which I hope will already sound familiar to you:
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST: A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is giving us a glimpse into our future. According to the latest population projections, adults 65 and older will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history by the year 2035. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has more.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Baby boomers are driving this graying of America. It's a group that Ronald Lee has been tracking for decades at the University of California, Berkeley. That's where he was a founding director...
RONALD LEE: ...Of the Center for the Economics and Demography of Aging.
WANG: And he says you can think about the aging of baby boomers like a pig being swallowed whole by a python.
LEE: The pig is a baby boomer. It's not that they're greedy. It could as well be a sheep or a big rock. It's just - it's a bulge.
WANG: And as this bulge of baby boomers moves through each decade, they're making dramatic shifts in the country's demographics. By 2030, all baby boomers will be older than 65, and the Census Bureau projects that will grow the size of the older population so much that 1 in 5 people in the U.S. will be retirement age. And by that point, the baby boomer generation, or that pig, if you will, will be closer to the end of the python.
LEE: Unlike the pig in the python, it doesn't get digested. It gradually dies off.
This wouldn't necessarily be a big issue were it not for the increase in dependence that typically accompanies aging. People need health care--which is expensive--and if they haven't saved enough for retirement (as most people have not), then they are economically dependent upon pensions paid to them by people who are still in the labor force--typically the younger generations.

Almost two decades ago, Paul Krugman was thinking about this in a piece he wrote for the NYTimes in 2000.  One of the issues in the 2000 U.S. presidential race between George Bush and Al Gore was the funding of Social Security. Al Gore was interested in protecting those funds in a "lock box" and Bush wasn't. But Bush won the election, so the money wasn't locked up. 
And where will the money come from? Remember that Mr. Bush is also proposing huge tax cuts. Aside from eliminating a surplus that might have been used to help Social Security, those cuts will encourage the nation as a whole to consume more and save less, exactly the opposite of what an aging society should be doing. 
Meanwhile the pig is still in the python, inching inexorably toward its destiny. Is anyone paying attention?
The real answer is NO, no one with political power was paying attention. Indeed, much of the Social Security surplus that existed at the time was spent on the Iraq War that followed 9/11.

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