Demography may be destiny, but…

Twenty-five to fifty year projections of relative economic strength based on demographics have one key assumption that (I hope!) isn’t really safe to make:

Older people will always lack health and vigor relative to younger people.

This assumes in turn long-term stagnation in the advancement of medical technology.

If we’re the least bit optimistic about our future, we’ll tend to regard such pronouncement as being about as reliable as 25 or 50 year projections made in 1900 about the quantity of horse droppings littering the streets of our cities.

If the projections are valid, and anti-aging treatments don’t get developed over the next fifty years, then most people reading this are pretty much screwed. Even a continuing absence of such treatments over 25 years would be a very disturbing sign that long-term stagnation is the order of the day.

But let’s assume that National Health Care never comes to pass, and a working anti-aging treatment successfully runs the FDA gauntlet (or gets developed overseas by researchers that have more latitude in playing with stem cells). What then do current demographic trends portend?

Predictions based on the age distribution in a population get turned on their heads. Having lots of older people becomes an advantage: they’ve got their youthful vigor back, plus lots of experience. Age demographics will tend to favor Europe, Japan, China, et al, rather than the United States, especially if they get the treatment first.

Of course, it won’t be a complete reversal. As it stands, older people are a positive burden on the younger people, while with anti-aging treatment, younger people will be productive, only less so than older people, so extra younger people in places like the United States won’t be a drag on the economy the way extra older people in places like Europe and Japan are projected to be in the absence of anti-aging treatments. Proportions won’t be as important as sheer numbers, where we’ll still be in good shape, or economic freedom and attraction of talent, where we’ll probably be relatively better for the foreseeable future.

But, either the aging of our trading partners and competitors will at some point end up working to their relative advantage, rather than ours, or you and I have significantly less than a century to live, and will not get a stay of execution.

10 thoughts on “Demography may be destiny, but…”

  1. Part of what needs consideration is the role of state-funded pay-as-y’all-go pension plans. Given the tendency of older folks to vote, making them healthier might not wean them from the government teat.

    I suspect it’ll have to get pretty bad before we get the newly limber and lively centarians off the public teat and back into the workforce.

    Additionally, it’ll play bloody living hell with a lot of pension systems, particularly government ones.

    Great murkiness ahead, I fear.

  2. That’ll work even more in China’s (relative) favor, since they haven’t got much of a public pension system and don’t seem to be in a hurry to create one. If all goes well, their older people will go right back to work, while everyone else’s older people are busy partying (young bodies, remember?) on their social security checks.

  3. 1. People who are old and decrepit today are just flat out of luck, barring a resort to cryonics. (And it just doesn’t seem to be catching on with them, unfortunately.)

    2. Keeping people from getting decrepit in the first place is going to be a lot easier than restoring youth, though that too will come.

    3. Even today, the retirement age, at least in the US, has grown disconnected from medical reality.

    The most likely scenario, IMO, is that the demographic burden of maintaining an increasing number of people on the dole merely because of their calender age, will overcome the political clout of the increasing number of elderly voters, and the retirement age will start creeping up, though it will continue to lag medical reality. Or perhaps retirement programs will be linked to genuine medical need.

    By the way, note that successful anti-aging treatments will dramatically skew the age demographics, which after all are predicting an increase in the proportion of elderly even assuming that they keep dying as usual.

  4. Retirement should be based on the capabilities of people rather than age.If retirement age had a higher ceiling and was optional rather than mandatory it would allow for a phasing out of work as and when the age made the burden too great.Various flexible work patterns could be devised letting individuals pace themselves.There would have to be tax incentives so that pensions and saving were not penalised.
    Importantly there wouldn’t be the cull of experienced workers that occured over the last three decades.

  5. One other great part of your rosy scenario is that in 2040 we could be listening to presidential candidates squabbling about what they did during the Vietnam war. I know I enjoy it now; think how great it will be when it’s older than I Love Lucy re-runs.

  6. I don’t want to know about what they did 70 years ago! I want to hear what they’re going to do for my crochety old ass now, in 2040. We shoulda nominated the “little brown one”, George Prescott Bush!

  7. It simply shouldn’t be up to the government to arbitrarily decide your retirement age based on a one-size-fits-all formula. Even with the current system, and given current technologies, people should, at a minimum, be able to decide to contribute more or less, and retire earlier or later if they wish.

    Of course, that wouldn’t solve any of the other problems. But even in a pay-as-you-go system, the concept of a retirement age is arbitrary and unfair.

  8. You’re not considering a more serious problem. Assume that a breakthrough is made but that it cannot be exported to the general population either because it is a) hideously expensive with no possibility of getting much cheaper within a few generations or b) is constrained by genetics so that s o m e people can be more easily treated than others.

    What this means — in a world in which material differences are smaller than ever before — is that the real inequality gap will be between the very long lived and everybody else. This could mean some really ugly politics.

    Oh yeah! I bet that world would be a fun place to live…

  9. “What this means — in a world in which material differences are smaller than ever before — is that the real inequality gap will be between the very long lived and everybody else. This could mean some really ugly politics.”

    This is just a new incarnation of the same notion we’ve been contending with for years – the notion that a situation where a few people have something really good (a life of luxury or the greatest medical advance of all time) is worse than the situation where no one has it, even if the condition of the “masses” is the same.

    Letting that notion take hold is a good recipe for stagnation. Every technological advance gets used by the rich first. Then men like Henry Ford get rich making it cheaper and selling it to the masses.

    Over the long term, we’ll have to put that notion to rest with the rest of the superstitious nonsense that human beings have swallowed with disastrous results throughout the ages. This makes as good a battlefield as any.

    If we play our cards right, we can get some really good politics out of this. If the FDA can be shown to be delaying any step of the process of either introducing the initial treatment or of making it cheaper and more widespread, then we can point to the people that died as a result, and strip that agency of its power.

    Anyone pushing pharmaceutical price controls or National Health Care will find it much harder to dismiss concerns about continued medical research when it becomes clear that such research offers the only hope of ending the terrible scourge that cut down every single generation since the dawn of Mankind without mercy, and we can drive a stake through the hearts of those idiotic plans once and for all.

    Sure, none of this is guaranteed, but given the alternative, I’d rather take my chances.

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