The nation’s workforce has experienced some traumatic events over the past five years. Between the financial crises, global competition and the slow pace of domestic economic growth, is it any wonder that employment in the U.S. is not what it should be? Yet the biggest challenge of all may be right around the corner as the Baby Boomers retire in droves.
From 1946 to 1964, there was a boom of baby making in this country. A total of 76 million Americans were born during those 19 years. Now those Americans are between the ages of 50 to 68 and are eyeing the prospect of retirement in the near future.
Think of it, nearly one quarter of all Americans alive today will be leaving the labor force in the years to come. In their heyday, this demographic group shaped much of what this country is today. They lived through the greatest economic boom in our nation’s history. They spent more, consumed more, bought more homes and by the late 1990s, had pushed the labor force participation rate (the share of Americans who have a job or who are looking for one) to record highs. By 2003, 82% of Baby Boomers were in the labor force. But times they are a changing.
Every month, more than a quarter million of us are turning 65 years old. The share of those 55 and older who are working or looking for work is beginning to fall dramatically. We didn’t really notice this change until now because the financial crisis and subsequent recession put many Boomer’s retirement plans on hold. Only 10% of Boomers had decided to retire by 2010.
Since then, however, the financial markets have come back and so has American’s retirement savings accounts. Older workers are deciding to retire as portfolios increase and their confidence in the future gains ground. In the last four years, that Baby Boomer retirement figure has jumped from 10% to 17% while their labor force participation rate has just hit a 36-year low in 2014.
Over time this trend will have some profound implications for the economy. Retirees, for example, contribute less to the growth of an economy than active workers. Retirees do not produce anything. They also spend much less than they did when they were working. What’s worse, the retiree community in this country has little savings. Over 31% of Americans have no savings at all. That means a fair amount of Baby Boomers will need to depend on others, such as government or family to support them.
All this is measured by what economists call “the dependency ratio.” It is the number of people outside of working age (under 18 or over 64) per 100 adults. Adults are classified as those between ages 18 and 64. The idea is that the higher the ratio of young or old in a given population, the more difficult it is for those of working age to support these dependents.
The good news is that the dependency ratio has been improving in this country in recent decades from 65 in 1980 to 61 in the year 2000. But the trend is beginning to reverse. By 2020, we will be back up to 65 again. And by 2030 it will be 75. But it could be worse.
Today, the U.S. has fewer residents over 65 years old than most other developed nations. By 2050, about 21% of our population will be 65 or older, compared to more than 30% in Western Europe and 40% in Japan. And as luck would have it, Baby Boomers are retiring at the very time their children are hitting their prime work years.
These “echo-boomers” are an even larger demographic group in size than the Baby Boomers. Many of them can’t wait until we old fogies retire and open the professional workplace pipeline to their advancement. Some economists believe our reticence in embracing retirement has just led to lost opportunity for the young. In any case, more and more of us will be stepping aside in the years to come. At the very least it will mean a sea change in how and who grows the U.S. economy for the foreseeable future.