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Tuesday, May 21, 2019
HomePolicyThe World’s Demographic Problem

The World’s Demographic Problem

Global Welfare State Graphic
Global Welfare State Graphic

Global Welfare State Graphic

I gave a speech last night at the University of Texas Arlington on the topic of “Is America turning into Greece? How the growth of government and debt risk creating a dismal future for young Americans.”

Not a very succinct title, I realize, but I wanted to warn students that they are the ones who will suffer if today’s politicians fail to enact genuine entitlement reform. And since I told them I wasn’t expecting reform with President Donald Trump in the White House, my message was rather gloomy.

My only good news is that I told students that nations such as ItalyJapan, and France likely would suffer fiscal crises before the you-know-what hit the fan in America.

Though it would have been better if my speech was today. I could have cited this Robert Samuelson column from the Washington Post.

No one can say we weren’t warned. For years, scholars of all shapes and sizes — demographers, economists, political scientists — have cautioned that the populations of most advanced countries are gradually getting older, with dramatic consequences for economics and politics. But we haven’t taken heed by preparing for an unavoidable future. The “we” refers not just to the United States but to virtually all advanced societies. In fact, America’s aging, though substantial, is relatively modest compared with that of many European countries and Japan. …The problem is simple. Low birth rates and increasing life expectancies result in aging populations. Since 1970, average life expectancy at age 60 in OECD countries has risen from 18 years to 23.4 years; by 2050, it’s forecast to increase to 27.9 years — that is, to nearly 90. The costs of Social Security and pensions will explode. …The implication: Unless retirement ages are raised sharply or benefits are cut deeply, more and more of the income of the working-age population will be siphoned off through higher taxes or cuts in other government spending to support retirees.

Here’s a table from the article that shows the radical erosion in the age-dependency ratio for selected nations. To give you an idea what the numbers mean, a ratio of 33 (Greece today) means that each worker is supporting one-third of a retiree while a ratio of 73 (Greece in 2050) means that each worker is supporting three-fourths of a retiree.

The Greek numbers are grim, of course, and Italy and Japan are also in very bad shape.

And it’s worth noting that the ratio in China will rapidly deteriorate.

An article in New Scientist makes a similar observation about dramatic demographic change.

Could the population bomb be about to go off in the most unexpected way? Rather than a Malthusian meltdown, could we instead be on the verge of a demographic implosion? To find out how and why, go to Japan, where a recent survey found that people are giving up on sex. Despite a life expectancy of 85 and rising, the number of Japanese is falling thanks to a fertility rate of just 1.4 children per woman… Half the world’s nations have fertility rates below the replacement level of just over two children per woman. Countries across Europe and the Far East are teetering on a demographic cliff, with rates below 1.5. On recent trends, Germany and Italy could see their populations halve within the next 60 years.

The most sobering information is contained in a new report from my “friends” at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). I’m definitely not a fan of the OECD’s policy work, but it does a good job of collecting apples-to-apples data.

Let’s start with the OECD’s calculations of how the old-age dependency ratio will change in various nations.

It’s not good to have a very tall black line in Figure 1.1, so we can confirm the bad news about Italy, Greece, and Japan. But note that Spain, Portugal, and South Korea also face a grim future. Simply stated, tomorrow’s workers will face an enormous burden.

There are two reasons for these grim numbers.

First, we’re living longer. That’s good news for us, but it’s bad news for the sustainability of tax-and-transfer entitlement programs (i.e., this partially explains why Social Security in the U.S. has a $44 trillion shortfall).

This chart shows that increasing longevity is a big reason why both men and women are spending more years in retirement (though there’s a glimmer of good news since the data shows that we’re no longer retiring at ever-younger ages).

 

In addition to living longer, we’re also having fewer kids.

This is a big deal because more babies today mean more future taxpayers.

But you can see from this table that birthrates have declined in America, as well as in other developed nations (keep in mind that a fertility rate of 2.1 is needed to keep the native-born population from shrinking).

United States Total fertility rates, 1960 - 2060

Even more shocking, check out the demographic data for Japan and South Korea. Birth rates in Japan already had fallen by 1960 and they’re even lower today. But the numbers for South Korea are staggering.

Japan Korea Total fertility rates, 1960 - 2060

Wow.

I guess it’s now easy to understand this story from South Korea.

Students at two South Korean universities are being offering courses that make it mandatory for them to date their classmates as the country battles to reverse one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Seoul’s Dongguk and Kyung Hee universities say the courses on dating, sex, love and relationships target a generation which is shunning traditional family lives. …She said: ”Korea’s fall in population has made dating and marriage important but young Koreans are too busy these days and clumsy in making new acquaintances.” And as part of the course, students have to date three classmates for a month… Seoul has spent about £50 billion trying to boost the birth rate.

I don’t know what’s the strangest part of the article, the part about having to date your classmates as part of homework (do you get extra credit if the girl gets pregnant?!?) or the part about the government squandering an astounding 50 billion pounds (about 67 billion dollars) on trying to encourage kids

I guess politicians never learn.

Or this story from Japan that brings back painful memories of high school.

Talk about a shrinking population. A survey of Japanese people aged 18 to 34 found that almost 70 percent of unmarried men and 60 percent of unmarried women are not in a relationship. Moreover, many of them have never got close and cuddly. Around 42 percent of the men and 44.2 percent of the women admitted they were virgins. The government won’t be pleased that sexlessness is becoming as Japanese as sumo and sake. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has talked up boosting the birthrate through support for child care, but until the nation bones up on bedroom gymnastics there’ll be no medals to hand out. …Boosting the birthrate is one of the coveted goals of the Abe administration, which has declared it will raise the fertility rate from the current 1.4 to 1.8 by 2025 or so.

The bottom line, as Samuelson suggested in his column, is that western nations are facing a baked-in-the-cake demographic-fiscal crisis.

What’s sad is that we know the crisis will happen, but politicians in most nations have no intention of solving the problems.

Written by
Contributing Economist

Daniel J. Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy. Mitchell’s articles can be found in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Investor’s Business Daily, and the Washington Times. He is the author of "The Flat Tax: Freedom, Fairness, Jobs, and Growth," and co-author of "Global Tax Revolution: The Rise of Tax Competition and the Battle to Defend It."

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