America / Culture / Economy / Fiscal policy / Medicare / Politics / Social Security

The Confident Public: Misguided or Justified on the “Graying of America?”

The graying of America is not a new fear for economists and politicians. Before even the earliest Baby Boomers began retiring, economists were making predictions about the hardships America would undoubtedly face as it aged.

Many say those problems have already begun, while others argue they have been over exaggerated and prematurely predicted.

The American public does not seem to share some experts’ dooms day outlook on the problem. In fact, research conducted by the Pew Research Center throughout 2013 indicates that only one-quarter of the public considers aging a “major problem.” Other findings in the same study unearth some unsettling statistics revealing that there may be cause for concern.

The question at hand is, should the public buy into the anxiety some experts feel on this issue, or is their fearlessness justified?

The problem: The Pew study finds that the proportion of people aged 65 and older in the U.S. will rise from 13 percent to 21.4 percent, with an old-age dependency ratio almost doubling from 19 percent to 36 percent. The growing size of the senior population will put a larger financial burden on a smaller working population.

The nervous experts: Economists like Harry Dent view this demographic change as an enormous crisis. In his new book, The Demographic Cliff: How to Survive and Prosper During the Great Deflation of 2014-2019, Dent outlines some of the major issues the American economy will face due to evolving demographics. These crises include a stock market crash, mounting massive public and private debt, less consumer-spending, and enormous burdens on healthcare and entitlement programs. Dent argues that the issues caused by a graying America have already begun, and have been contributing to the recession since late 2007.

James Sock and Mark Watson also cite demographics and declining “labor force participation” as causes of economic downturn in their paper, “Disentangling the Channels of the 2007-2009 Recession.” They warn of the severity of future recessions, slow economic growth, and dangerously rising costs of Social Security and Medicare as burdens a shrinking working population will not be able to address without adequate reform and preparation.

Other research done by McKinsey Global Institute in 2008 shows that only one-third of the aging population is prepared for retirement, supplementing the concern over economic crises due to a rapidly aging demographic.

The sanguine experts: Joseph Coughlin, founder of the AgeLab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted in a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations that the aging American population is filled with optimism, rather than concern.

Kelly Michel, a senior vice president at AEGON USA, stated at the same panel that this optimism fosters a culture of self-reliance, which will ultimately combat the stresses of an aging population. Individuals assuming responsibility for their care in old age by saving more adequately for their own retirement will not take money out of public programs, lessening hardships from aging.

Coughlin also sites the rise of entrepreneurship – especially among the middle-aged – as a sign that an older working class could actually drive the market rather than injure it. This view puts a uniquely positive spin on the graying trend in America.

Sylvester Schieber, an independent pension consultant, and Andrew Biggs, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, recently wrote an article arguing that the data showing that most Americans are unprepared for retirement is inaccurate. The Social Security Administration uses U.S. Census Bureau reports that over-exaggerate the pending doom of caused by America’s aging population. The pair argues that Americans are more ready to meet demographic challenges than they get credit for.

The people: The American public appears to side with the optimistic experts. As previously stated, only one-quarter of Americans see the graying of America as a major issue. According to the same Pew survey, almost half of Americans expect to be responsible for their own care and well-being in old age, compared to 24 percent who expect to rely on the government. This echoes Coughlin and Michel’s sentiments that the self-reliant culture in the U.S. encourages individuals to prepare responsibly and sufficiently for their own retirement.

Additionally, among those who feel that the government should shoulder the burdens of old age, only 44 percent feel confident in their own well-being, compared to 77 percent of those who think that the government is not responsible.  Individuals feel confident in their security post-retirement, despite the potential threats an aging population place on government entitlement programs.

The public maintains this confidence in the face of other economic threats as well. Even among Americans who consider the nation’s economic situation “bad,” about 60 percent are confident in their standard of living in old age. The public does not appear to reflect some experts’ fear of the possible future demographic crisis.

Individuals not counting on government programs to support them until the end of their lives will invest in their own retirement plans, adopt more prudent spending and saving habits, and decrease their dependence on government programs as they age. They also expect to work later in life, contributing to the economy longer. These trends will lessen the burden of the younger working population – and maybe even promote slow economic growth.

The public opinion data brought forth in the Pew study, “Attitudes on Aging: A Global Perspective” should not be looked at as an excuse to skirt reform. It should be presented as evidence that small reforms, proactivity, and individual financial education and empowerment will help alleviate the problems America faces as it ages.

With so much information predicting different outcomes of the “graying of America,” it is difficult – impossible maybe– to say which group is correct. However, the public’s confidence regarding the dramatic demographic changes occurring seems justified.