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Smarter, greener, healthier and more productive: The new old

27 October 2014
A more cheerful outlook

A more cheerful outlook

Today’s post is by Tobias Vogt and Fanny Kluge from the Laboratory of Survival and Longevity at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany

Ageing populations are a threat to the sustainability of modern societies. This is a dominant line of thought in the political, public and scientific discussion that warns us about the consequences of demographic change. It refers to the concern that the needs of an increasing share of older people have to be met by a decreasing number of younger members of our societies. These warnings must be taken seriously if current conditions prevail. The changes in the age structure will bring major challenges to public finances and the demand for an adjustment of current social policies, in particular, in countries with large public welfare programs for the elderly. Yet, the demographic future may not look as bleak as we generally think. The greying of a population may even embrace certain advantages simply because of the natural transformation of the age structure. This thought was the starting point for a, so far rare, project that focused on the potentials and chances of demographic change. In this case study (downloadable from PLoS One) we focused on Germany as the second oldest country worldwide in terms of its population’s median age of 44.3 years and identified five different areas that may benefit if observed trends of the past continue into the future.

To understand the anticipated challenges as well as the opportunities of demographic change one has to keep in mind that they only result from a change in the age structure of a population. If we depict the current age composition in Germany or in most industrialized countries, it looks rather more like a tree than the usual population pyramid. Yet, this illustration will also only be a snapshot as the over-represented older age groups will become smaller and eventually disappear in the coming decades. Despite ongoing low fertility and a general population decline, this will result in a more stable age structure after 2040 than in the decades when the large baby boom cohorts reach retirement age. In the last decades the share of Germans above age 65 rose by 2 to 3 percentage points. Between 2020 and 2040 this share of Germans will increase by 10 percentage points from 23% to 33%. In the following two decades it will remain stable at this high level and go up slightly.

One major concern of this population structure is that fewer and older individuals are expected to be less productive. This assumption ignores the fact that certain productivity determinants among older individuals like education and health will not remain constant but change over time.

During the last decades participation rates in higher education have increased from cohort to cohort which is reflected in the share of individuals in the labor force with tertiary education. In 2008, every fifth individual in the age groups 25-29 and over age 50 attained tertiary education. These shares will rise considerably. After 2050, every third individual in the respective age groups will have a tertiary education. If current labor force participation rates among these groups remain as they are, this would mean that 46% of the German labor force will hold a higher education degree compared to 28% today.

These changes in educational levels are accompanied by an improvement in individual health. Over the last 30 years, the age at which Germans report worsening subjective health has become later and later. If we forecast this trend into the future we find that not only average life expectancy as such will increase but also the number of years we live in good health. Already today Germans can expect to spend up to 60% of their life in good health. By 2050, this share will increase to 80%, which suggests that most of the years of gained life expectancy may not necessarily be years of bad health. Of course, this scenario is based on past developments and neglects potential future health threats like the consequences of increasing obesity levels and rising cognitive impairments at older ages. Nevertheless, fears of productivity losses may be partially absorbed by the improvements in individual health and education.

A smaller and older population may not only be more productive than expected but even cause less environmental pollution. When we observe individual consumption patterns and their ecological consequences, we find that over the life course younger individuals travel and consume more and, thus, cause higher CO2 emissions than individuals at retirement age. This implies that if today’s consumption behavior prevails, older and smaller populations may generate substantial CO2 reductions. We found that the change in population size and consumption preferences led to a 30% increase in emissions between 1950 and 2020. In the following decades, emissions could decline even to pre-1950s levels.

Apart from the challenges and opportunities on the population level, demographic change will certainly influence our individual lives and our family relationships. On average, we will live longer in good health and need care later, but there will be fewer younger individuals in our family network to support their elderly parents or other relatives. Whether changes in time use can make up for these missing individuals is questionable. We find that if the current work and leisure patterns prevail, individuals will spend slightly more time on leisure and housework and the share of work time drops from 14.5% to 11.9%. Whether the young really spend the additional time they have with the elderly remains to be seen. One important question in this respect is also how valuable the elderly will be in terms of resources they can provide. The wealth they pass on to the next generation will have to be shared with a smaller number of siblings and thus younger family members might be better off.

Certainly this study does not solve the challenges we face in the future, but it sheds some light on potential opportunities that aging populations create. During the coming decades societal frameworks will change and individuals will adapt their behavior to new expectations. The magnitude of the future effects is thus unknown, but we should start to discuss this potential, and favorable adaptations in our society. The future is not too bright, but also not as dark as sometimes argued and we do have the potential to change it.

Useful links

Ageing (Un)equally? OECD Forum 2014

Working better with age OECD review of policies to improve labour market prospects for older workers

OECD health data



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