The Upside of Aging

Michael Hendrix does a nice job outlining some of the problems we face with a global population that is aging rapidly. And I can’t say enough good things about the work of NCF fellows Ted Fishman and Joel Kotkin on aging and demographic shifts.

But let me suggest some potential upside in our aging world.

One important dynamic not sufficiently appreciated is that we are not just aging, but we are, as demographer Nick Eberstadt puts it, “healthy aging.” In other words, we are getting older and living longer, but our elderly are quite healthy, too (certainly relative to the elderly of several generations ago). Since our older men and women have sound minds in sound bodies, they can be tremendous workplace assets, capable today of being productive workers contributing to economic growth.

But today it is not unusual for older, healthy men and women to abandon the workforce. In Europe, for example, it is common for perfectly healthy men to leave the workforce at age 55. They devote their later years to leisure and consumption as opposed to work and production. This is not surprising given current policy in Europe taxes work too heavily and has built rigidities into the labor market that penalize hiring and firing, raising the costs to employers.

What a waste! Older workers are some of the best trained and with the deepest reservoirs of experience. We are fortunate that men and women in advanced nations are healthy in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond. We need to tap that talent and experience by reforming tax policy and labor markets in a manner that encourages work and discourages prolonged periods of idleness and consumption.The Rolling Stones famously sung “What a Drag It Is Getting Old!” But healthy aging can be our friend.