Cost of Aging
by Ronald Lee and Andrew Mason
SUMMARY | In advanced economies around the world, population growth is slowing down and populations are growing older. Economic growth is also slowing, at least in part because of the slow growth of the labor force and of populations as a whole—despite immigration. Many empirical studies have found that gross domestic product (GDP) growth slows roughly one to one with declines in labor-force and population growth—a disquieting prospect for the United States and for advanced economies in Asia and Europe.
If there are fewer workers to support a growing elderly population and worker productivity remains the same, either consumption must be reduced or labor supply increased—for example, through later retirement. By 2050, the projected slowdown in growth of the labor supply could lead to a drop in consumption of 25 percent in China, 9 percent in the United States, and 13 percent in other high-income countries.
The situation could be improved, however, by a rise in labor-force productivity. In fact, standard growth models predict that slower population growth will lead to rising output and wages per worker. The underlying question is whether this higher output per worker will be sufficient to offset the rise in the number of dependents per worker as the population ages.
To help answer this question, this article looks more closely at how economic activity varies by age, drawing on national transfer accounts, which measure how people at various ages produce, consume, and save resources. This analysis shows that GDP and national income growth will most certainly slow down as populations age, but the effect on individuals—as measured by per capita income and consumption—may be quite different.
A graying population will mean more elderly people who may not support themselves entirely from their own assets or labor income. But it may also bring more capital per worker and rising productivity and wages. Whether population aging is good or bad for the economy defies simple answers. The extent of the problem will depend, in large part, on how well public policy adjusts to new demographic realities.