U.S. economic growth has been underwhelming for some time, averaging around 2% these days. In recent months, economic commentators have intensified their search for the underlying reason why the economy can’t kick into higher gear. They’ve landed on this highly disputable explanation: Too many old people. The economic core of the fear-based narrative is that—with more Americans expected to be 65 and older than 18 and younger by 2035—there’ll be too few young workers to financially support too many dependent elders. Consequently, these analysts say, the U.S. economy is condemned to a permanent state of stagnant growth at best, and possibly much worse.
Can’t we shed this hidebound way of framing aging? The dire-demographics-of-aging school routinely ignores a major social and economic paradigm shift among people in the second half of life: They’re working longer. The trend toward continuing to earn a paycheck later in life is well documented, yet the dramatic shift in behavior remains vastly underappreciated. Consider this:
- Around 90% of the increase in employment in the U.S. since 1998 has come from higher employment of workers 55 and older.
- The labor force participation rate for people age 65 to 69 has risen from roughly 28% in 1998 to 38% in 2019 for men and from 18% to about 30% for women.
- Adults between ages 55 and 64 made up 26% of new entrepreneurs in 2017. That’s a significant increase over the 19% percent figure in 2007.
Scholars in a variety of disciplines have created a research-rich story highlighting the enormous opportunities for America opening up with aging populations. Chief reasons: Older adults are healthier, better educated and more productive than previous generations. Framing matters when it comes to the U.S. economy. Instead of seeing growing older through the lens of inevitable decline and frailty, think about the opportunities an aging population could open in America’s workplace and startup culture.
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