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Implications of Our Aging Population

Aging is a key force shaping our societies and the economy. Too often, the current debate on aging and demographic change narrowly focuses on the direct implications for pensions system and healthcare and neglects the broader economic implications. An understanding of the wide ranging economic implications of demographic change, however, is fundamental for insurers and policymakers in order to make sound long-term decisions.

The world of shrinking workforces

The world is quickly entering a new phase of demographic development. The new world is characterized by a shrinking or – at best – stagnating workforce due to the continuous decline of birth rates since the “baby boomer generation.” While Germany’s working age population peaked about 15 years ago, according to UN figures, China is currently at a record. In the U.S., the working age population is expected to continue to grow due to immigration, albeit at a much slower pace than in the past.

But decreasing birth rates not only mean that that the workforce is shrinking (or at least not growing). It also means that the average age of the workforce is increasing, especially until the baby boomer generation will be retired within the next decade. We refer to this phenomenon as “silver workers.”

Furthermore, as people live longer, the proportion of retirees in the total population is going to increase. This increase will be far more pronounced in the future than it was in the past. In developing economies, this trend is starting at a much lower level, but the eventual change will be far more rapid and dramatic than in developed economies.

The economics of aging

These demographic developments – shrinking workforces, the rise of silver workers and increasing share of retirees – will have profound economic implications.

In a world of shrinking workforces, we cannot expect the economy to expand rapidly, unless productivity can be increased far beyond long-term historical averages. In fact, past growth rates were driven considerably by an increasing labor force. This is especially true for some developing economies like Brazil and Mexico. But also in the U.S., more than 40% of economic growth over the past 25 years can be attributed to an increasing working age population. We will have to get used to low GDP growth rates.

See also: The Great AI Race in Insurance Innovation  

However, overall GDP growth says little about the development of individual living standards. To assess living standards, we need to consider the implications of demographic change on GDP per capita.

Three forces are at play:

First, because fewer workers will have to provide for more retirees, demographic change depresses GDP per capita. In the U.S., the share of working age population to total population is expected to decline from 60% to 54% over the next 25 years. In China and Germany, the decline is more pronounced: from 67% to 57% in China and from 61% to 51% in Germany. This implies that, as long as the production of each person of working age does not change, per capita GDP would decrease by 9% in the U.S. and by 15% in China and Germany by 2040.

Second, future GDP per capita will depend on the development of investments and savings. As people will have to live longer on their savings in retirement, we expect saving rates to increase. As these savings are invested, there will be more machines per person (i.e. the capital stock will increase relative to the labor force). This will partly compensate for the negative impact of the labor force development on GDP per capita.

Finally, advances in productivity may entirely or partially offset the demographic pressure on GDP per capita. Projections of productivity growth are fraught with high uncertainty. However, based on historical productivity growth rates (about 1.5% per year in most developed countries), productivity growth will likely compensate for the negative demographic impact on GDP per capita in most countries (Italy being a potential exception).

Taking these three factors together, we conclude that GDP per capita will continue to grow in most countries, albeit at a slower pace than in the past.

The next question is: How will this per capita income be distributed among workers and retirees?

We expect that aging will depress real interest rates as the demand for capital is likely to shrink relative to savings. In fact, real interest rates have been steadily declining over the last three decades. We will have to get used to a low-interest environment and, hence, low returns on retirement savings.

At the same time, the relative scarceness of labor should bolster wages. Hence, the future workers will likely benefit relative to future retirees (who are today’s middle-aged savers).

A threefold challenge

This analysis suggests that there is a threefold funding challenge from aging.

First, low interest rates make it difficult for individuals to accumulate sufficient savings to fund their retirement.

Second, the increasing share of retirees in society exerts a rising funding pressure on public pay-as-you go pensions systems. While in the U.S. there are currently 25 people of retirement age per 100 of working age, it will be 40 people of retirement age in 25 years.

Third, the increasing average age of the workforce raises the risk of disability. Inability to work due to critical illness or disability reduces the ability of individuals to accumulate sufficient savings to fund retirement.

Policymakers have to consider a number of policy measures to address this threefold funding challenge. Potential measures include increasing the retirement age, providing incentives for individual savings, enhancing productivity, increasing labor force participation and increasing pensions contribution or reduce benefits.

See also: Demographics and P&C Insurance  

In most countries, however, none of these measures seems desirable or politically feasible on its own. In the U.S., for example, pension contributions would have to be increased by 63% between 2015 and 2040 to compensate for the increasing share of retirees in the population. Alternatively, the retirement age would have to be increased by seven years.

Policymakers therefore need to develop strategies that combine a broad range of different measures in varying degrees. There is a risk, though, that measures to enhance productivity, namely investments in education, will be de-prioritized as public finances come under increasing strain.

For insurers, this analysis suggests that they must adapt to a world of slow growth and low interest rates in the longer term. Furthermore, in a world of aging workforces, products designed to protect the income against disability and inability to work will become more important. Hence we expect to see a stronger shift from savings products to protection products.