Should we be scared of everyone living longer?

Senior Citizens

100 used to be a semi-unattainable age. It still mostly is, but more and more people will get there — to the point that The Atlantic did a cover story on that topic, which I just read on a plane. (Interestingly, the U.S. average life expectancy is about 78.7 years, which is only 26th out of 36 OECD nations — and the figure ranks below the 80.1 OECD average.) All this said, though, the U.S. life expectancy is still eight years better now than it was in even 1970 — which means there’s a chance it could be around 86-87 in another 20-30 years. Obviously, this is great news — more time on Earth with loved ones — but it also presents a gigantic mop bucket of challenges, too.

Obviously, there’s this:

If people live longer, that necessarily creates a wider gap between “age stopped working” and “age of death” (sorry to be morbid), which means people need more money to live — and social security may well run dry in 2033. Then there’s this potential issue:

Our analysis presents some back-of-the-envelope estimates that indicate that this longevity risk, when aggregated over all individuals, could make the global cost of aging—already recognized to be very large—some 50 percent larger still if people live just three years longer than currently expected. These extra costs could have large negative effects on already weakened private and public sector balance sheets, making them more vulnerable to other shocks and potentially affecting financial stability.

And then, there’s a delicate balance of “productive earners” and “supported” to keep in mind:

The numerical relationship between those who are in a position to be economically productive (14 to 64 years old) and those who are dependent (aged 65 and over) clearly shows the impact of the age structure in a society. There are fewer and fewer people in the productive age group able to provide support and protection for old people as years go by.

Think about this as a worst-case, doomsday scenario: the Baby Boomer generation has created a ton of wealth for themselves and the U.S. But … if that generation has parents living to 90-100 and they have to support them somewhat, could that make the Baby Boomer’s earnings in turn be less? Could that have an impact on the economy? At a straight-up micro-level, you’re going to buy less goods and services if you need to spend money to help your parents live. Right? This is semi-backed up by the notion that the most popular profession in 2022 — only about eight years from now, FYI — will involve health care. 

I think about this personally on two levels:

1. My parents are older — I think my dad turns 75 in April and my mom turns 71 in a few weeks. I contrast this with my in-laws, neither of whom are yet 60. There’s a child aspect there — in terms of, I’d like to have a kid so that my parents can see it grow up somewhat — but there’s also a protective aspect too. My dad still works, but not really full-time. I actually just started earning money consistently a few months ago — so if I get to a situation where I need to take more care of them (not necessarily going to happen tomorrow, but you know what I mean), that’s something I worry about in the context of my own life. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it — I would — but it’s an economic impact that needs to be considered.

2. I actually work within the travel and leisure industry right now, which is random to an extent, because I had never done anything remotely like this beforehand. One interesting thing you see in travel is this idea: for generations, the concept was “You make money, and you leave wealth to your children.” Now the concept for some is: “You make money, and you leave experiences to your children.” So for example, I met a family who took 15 people to Italy for a couple of weeks — grandparents, parents, grandchildren. The whole kit and kaboodle, you know? That obviously costs a good deal of money, and that’s less money for the parent generation to receive. But at the same time, the experience therein — traveling through a great country with everyone together — is something that’s hard to evaluate, right? I know most people I know would probably want some money (because if you’re on Earth, you need it), but the value of the experience is something that you can’t assign a number to. If that becomes a bigger trend — the term is “multi-generational travel,” by the way — that would be interesting to consider.Senior Citizens Part II

There are broader societal issues to consider here, of course — if previous generations saw their parents pass away at 75-80, and future generations will see their parents live to 95-100, that’s a lot more years of seeing your parents in general decline. There’s an emotional toll there. There’s also the idea of “Where will your parents live?” You’re seeing trends like split-level apartments, senior living facilities on college campuses (put the kids and your parents in the same place, plus immediate access to health care), etc.

And then, of course, there’s the whole idea that most species don’t actually take care of their elderly — humans are one of the rare ones.

It’s a changing dynamic, for sure — I don’t think we should necessarily be scared of it, though, because we don’t know conclusively what happens when we die. As a result, we should savor our time with loved ones here, even if the economic impacts are kind of semi-dire. (Everything is semi-dire at some level.)



Ted Bauer