LIKE A SLOW-MOTION train wreck, we’ve spent recent decades inching toward a world where we have too few workers and too many retirees dependent upon their labor. Have we finally reached the tipping point?
Consider today’s confluence of economic events: a labor shortage, sharply higher inflation, massive government budget deficits, and depressed stock and bond prices. To be sure, all this can be explained by the pandemic and what followed—excessive government stimulus, supply chain issues, frightened and exhausted workers retiring in droves, and the past year’s about-face by a Federal Reserve intent on squashing inflation.
But arguably, the pandemic was simply the crisis that brought our demographic problems into sharp relief, including the retirement of the baby boomers, our dependence on imported goods, and federal government spending that’s increasingly directed toward Social Security and Medicare. The fundamental issue: In 2000, we had 4.8 Americans age 20 to 64 for every one person age 65 and older. Today, that number is 3.4, and in 10 years it’ll be 2.7, according to United Nations data. This, of course, isn’t just a U.S. problem: The worker-retiree imbalance is an even bigger issue in Western Europe and Japan.
At the same time, the pandemic and its fallout are also highlighting how we’ll resolve these issues—by pressuring those in their 60s to stay in the workforce for longer or to return to work either fulltime or part-time, while also pressuring employers to make the workplace more appealing to older workers.
How are older Americans being pressured? This year, their portfolios are shrinking even as their cost of living is climbing. No doubt many retirees are feeling squeezed and many older workers don’t like the way their finances look, and at least some have concluded that a little extra time in the workforce wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects more older Americans to stay in the workforce over the decade ahead. Among those ages 60 to 64, the BLS predicts labor force participation will climb from 57.1% in 2020 to 62.5% in 2030. Over the same stretch, it’s also projecting a rise from 33% to 39.6% in labor force participation among those 65 to 69, and an increase from 18.9% to 23.8% among those 70 to 74.
Another sign that folks are worried about how to pay for an increasingly lengthy retirement: More retired workers are delaying Social Security so they collect a larger stream of inflation-adjusted lifetime income—arguably the best hedge against the risk of a surprisingly long life. In 2021, 16.3% of men claiming benefits were age 67 or older, up from 10.3% in 2016. For women, the figures were 16.2% in 2021 and 11.5% in 2016. (These figures ignore those on Social Security disability benefits who were automatically converted over to retirement benefits when they reached their full Social Security retirement age.)
But it isn’t just workers who are feeling pressured. So, too, are employers, who are struggling to fill open positions. Job vacancies—as a percent of all jobs, including those that remain unfilled—were at 6.3% in October, close to a 20-year high, according to the BLS. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate was near a 50-year low at 3.7% in November. I suspect, in the years ahead, we’ll see forward-thinking employers take steps to make older workers feel more welcome, such as designing jobs that are less physically demanding, while also offering greater flexibility to work part-time and from home.
If we do see a move toward retiring at a later age, there are all kinds of potential benefits, both for the individuals concerned and for the economy. For individuals, there isn’t just the additional earned income, but potentially also a greater sense of purpose. Even in retirement, we all need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and working a few days each week might provide that.
Also think about the benefits for the economy. It isn’t just that we’ll keep workers with decades of wisdom in the workforce for longer. We’ll also start to rectify U.S. society’s imbalance between workers and those retirees who are effectively dependent on their labor. Make no mistake: This—more than anything—will go a long way to address many of the financial concerns that are voiced today.
Worried about the dwindling Social Security trust fund, the trade imbalance, inflation, the burgeoning federal government budget deficit and sluggish economic growth? These various issues—often blamed on things like insufficient tax receipts, excessive government spending and an over-reliance on foreign goods—are, in truth, driven by the fundamental problem of too few workers and too many retirees.
In other words, if workers can be enticed to stay in the workforce for longer, many of the financial problems we grouse about will potentially go away. This is a point that Robert Arnott and Anne Casscells emphasized in a 2003 article. More recently, Larry Siegel and Stephen Sexauer made a similar argument in an intriguing new paper.
As folks find themselves financially pressured to stay in the workforce for longer, there will no doubt be some hand-wringing in the media, as the pundits lament that 68-year-olds are compelled to work a few days each week. But for those who are in decent health and can find work they enjoy, is that really so terrible?