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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Europe’s ‘Tiger’

Last Friday Eurostat released the 2004 data on comparative per capita PPP’s (purchasing power parities) across the EU. Perhaps the most surprising fact which emerges is that Ireland is now in second place (after Luzembourg) with a PPP 40% above the EU average. For a country that not so long ago was considered one of the ‘poorer’ EU members this is truly stunning.

It is generally well known that Ireland had (and continues to have) one of the highest fertility and population growth rates in the EU, but this has not been regarded as especially important since conventional neo-clasical growth theory (and the new ‘super-duper’endogenous growth theory for that matter) argue that increased population means a bigger economy, but not necessarily an increase in per capita income. However, as I said yesterday, it’s all about population structure. What we are now understanding is that the right age structure can produce very rapid increases in per capita income, and Ireland is, of course, a good case in point.

In the case of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, New Economic Paradigm theorists David Bloom and David Canning, who have made a specific study of the Irish case, reached the following conclusions:
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