For weeks we have been subjected to strident voices, my own among them. Those voices have announced the perilously half empty glass before us. Business Week worries us with the coming "Geezer Glut." George W. Bush declares that Social Security is heading for bankruptcy. Alan Greenspan worries that Social Security demands could cause higher interest rates.
Worry, worry, worry.
Well, suppose this crisis is also an opportunity? Suppose there is a silver lining in all that grey hair? Suppose there is an upside to the Geezer Glut?
I think there is. We just don't know what it will be or how to measure it.
Let's start with the same numbers generally used to paint a bleak future--- the incredible increase in the number of elderly people in the next 25 years. In the year 2000 there were 35 million Americans age 65 or older, about 12.4 percent of the population. There were so many that demographers now divide the elderly into three groups:
• The "young-old" (ages 65-74),
• The "old" (ages 75-84),
• And the "old-old" (85 and over).
Each of those age segments is projected to rise dramatically by 2030 as the elderly population doubles to 71.4 million, nearly 20 percent of the projected population.
Most of the growth will be among the "young-old"---the 65 to 74 year olds. Their numbers will increase to 37.9 million from 18.4 million. That's an increase of 19.5 million people.
Most will be retired. Most will be relatively healthy. Many will be highly skilled. The increase alone--- that 19.5 million--- will represent the largest uncommitted pool of talent and capacity for work in our history. We don't know what they will do with that talent and capacity. But we can be pretty sure not all 19.5 million will devote every waking moment to golf, fishing, needlepoint, or watching reality TV.
We're talking about an army.
That army will increase each year by an amount greater than the 700,000 currently in the National Guard and Army reserves. By 2030 those 19.5 million young-olds will be a force nearly 20 times greater than the 500,000 now serving in the United States Army.
The largest civilian labor force in America is in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area, with about 4.8 million workers. The army of the young-old will increase by the equivalent of four times the Los Angeles metropolitan area labor force. It will be like adding the civilian labor force currently working in the five largest metropolitan areas in the United States; Los Angeles (4.8 million), New York (4.4 million), Chicago (4.2 million), Washington D.C. (2.8 million), and Philadelphia (2.6 million). It will be like adding nearly 10 new Dallas metropolitan areas. It will be like adding more than 20 new San Franciscos--- or 20 new San Joses.
The young-old army is equally impressive when measured against specific occupations. Education, training, and library occupations in the United States now provide jobs for 7.9 million people. Personal care and service occupations employ 4.5 million. Healthcare support occupations employ 2.9 million. Community and social service occupations employ 2.2 million. Add them all up and the 17.5 million total is less than the growth we'll see in young-olds.
So far, this change has been discussed as though it would be a dead weight loss.
I think that's wrong---but I can't tell you how we will benefit. I also can't tell you how, or if, that benefit will be measured anywhere. We know how to measure formal employment. We know how to measure what people do for money. Economists do all of that pretty well.
What economists do poorly, if at all, is measure the non-money economy, the human economy that makes the money economy possible.
So, readers, help me with this. If you are 55, 60, 65, or 75 and have retired or have otherwise found a need to reinvent yourself, write and tell me what you did, how you did it, and how you think it adds value to our society and economy. Together, we can build a picture of a more positive future. I'll report back to you, in columns, or with a new website, on how older Americans are reinventing themselves and adding value to our society.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the web:
Administration on Aging Statistics on Older Population, 1900-2050
Distribution of employment, 2004
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