Of Population Pyramids and Value Chains

It is by now well known that the main hope for developed societies subject to rapid population ageing who wish to maintain their relative standard of living lies in increasing their collective productivity more rapidly than they increase their dependency ratio via-a-vis the older age groups. Now in the comments thread on the recent ‘Reform is a Dirty Word‘ post I ventured to say that I found it obvious that at some stage we would reach a point where the rate of population ageing was going to outstrip the rate of productivity increase (in which case relative income per capita would inevitaby start to fall). David, unsurprisingly, asked me why I thought this to be the case. I was not happy with the response I offered (which was essentially some ‘rigmarole’ about the biology of ageing which is coming in a separate post), and since that time I have been scratching my head trying to find a simple way to get this point across. Perhaps I now have one.

All you need to get to grips with what follows is a basic understanding of geometry and a vague interest in football.
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No Answers Only Questions

One person who could rightly claim to know more about global ageing and its possible consequences than anyone else in the business is the German Director of the Manheim Research Institute for the Economics of Ageing Axel B?rsch-Supan. If there’s a conference being organised, he seems to be there. Actually his comments at both these meet-ups are well worth reading in and of themselves (here, and here).

In a sense B?rsch-Supan is almost uniquely qualified to express opinions on the topic since he has both devoted a large part of his professional career to studying the question, and he lives and works in a society which is already reeling under the impact. As he says:

“Today?s Germany has essentially the demographic structure that the United States will reach in a quarter of a century. The dependency ratio (the ratio of persons aged 65 and over to those aged from 20 to 59) is at 28 percent, and it will reach 75 percent in 2075, if we dare project that far. Almost one-fifth of the German population today are aged 65 and over. One quarter are aged 60 and over, which is relevant because the average retirement age in Germany is 59.5 years. Thus, in this sense the United States is not ?entering largely uncharted territory,? …. Rather, they can look to Europe?in particular to Germany and Italy?to see what will happen in the United States.”

I mention B?rsch-Supan because he serves as a good pretext for going over where we are to date with the issue. As he says himself. watching demography change is rather like watching a glacier melt, on a day-to-day basis it’s hard to see that anything is happening, but over time the impact is important.

One of his recent papers has the intriguing title: “Global Ageing: Issues, Answers, More Questions“. It is a good up-to-date review of the ‘state of the art’, and a quick examination of the points he makes probably serves as a good starting point, since I can’t help thinking, in the case of global ageing, it isn’t so much what we know that matters, it’s what we don’t know.

So here we go, a review of what we “know”, what we think we know, and what we don’t know:
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