Golis: Sorry, world, but you’re not getting any younger

By 2030, 1 in 5 Californians will be over 65 years old.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

There’s much talk of late about how societies, here and around the world, are getting older. One New York Times columnist was moved to suggest that aging in combination with declining birthrates will become an existential crisis, much like climate change.

While we can identify reasons to like the idea of living longer in a less crowded world, there remain economic and social changes we are only beginning to understand.

Pete Golis
Pete Golis

Societies, for example, don’t yet know how they will pay the economic costs associated with a growing cohort of retired people, especially when many people have little or no savings. By 2030, 1 in 5 Californians will be over 65 years old.

Societies with fewer young and middle-aged people also will lack the workers (and taxpayers and care providers) necessary to keep economies functioning in the ways we’ve come to expect.

In Sonoma County, these changes are magnified by the patterns of population growth over the past 60-plus years. From 1960 to 1990, the county grew rapidly, thanks to the arrival of young people attracted by the availability of affordable housing. But then growth slowed. (After the 2017 fires, the population actually declined.)

Now those same formerly young people are aging out of the workforce. The question is, who will take their place, especially in a county where an abundance of affordable housing has become a distant memory?

The news last week provided hints of problems ahead. County government, Staff Writer Emma Murphy reported, is struggling to overcome vacancies and rapid turnover because it can’t hire and retain the people needed to do the work of local government.

Speaking to a hometown audience, a UCLA economist said recruitment and job retention issues are to be blamed for a slowing economy. A shortage of public- and private-sector workers, he said, will impose “an especially heavy weight on a local economy driven by tourism and wine.”

You see the signs every day — We’re hiring! — because all kinds of employers can’t find the people they need. As a result, some businesses have closed, and others are surviving on reduced hours, an arrangement that becomes an inconvenience to customers and an impediment to maintaining a successful business.

How many people do you know who complain they can’t find a doctor or a dentist or a veterinarian or some other service provider? How many do you know who complain that they have to wait months for an appointment?

CVS and Walmart announced last week they are limiting pharmacy hours because they cannot hire a sufficient number of pharmacists to sustain the previous schedule. Walgreen’s is already operating on reduced hours.

Last week we also learned that the national unemployment rate sits at its lowest level in a half-century. The jobless rate in Sonoma County is a mere 2.5%.

Phillip Bump is the author of a new book, “The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America.” In an excerpt in Vanity Fair magazine, he quotes an economist who says there are seven working people for every senior today, but by 2030, the ratio sinks to 4-to-1, and by 2050, it shrinks to 3-to-1.

In France, the government is proposing to escape a budget calamity by raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 years old. (Workers who expected to retire at 62 are none too keen on the idea.)

In China, the population is decreasing for the first time in more than six decades, creating speculation that the country’s emergence as a superpower will run headlong into a shortage of workers and the costs associated with an aging population.

Italy — called by the New York Times the West’s “fastest-shrinking nation” — is proposing expanded long-term care for a growing population of elderly people, while at the same time trying to persuade Italians to have more children.

If you’re looking for reasons the U.S. has been slow to respond to these fundamental changes, you might begin with the fact that older Americans have been in charge for a long time, and they like to think life is defined by the world in which they grew up.

Writing about the continuing domination of an aging cohort of baby boomers, Yuval Levin, a New York Times opinion writer, explained, “Our politics should prioritize planning for greater national strength in the medium term, but we can hardly expect quarreling octogenarians to have that future clearly in mind.”

The president of the United States is 80 years old. His predecessor is 76. The outgoing speaker of the House is 82. The majority leader of the U.S. Senate is 72. The Republican leader in the Senate is 80.

The new speaker of the House represents what passes for a changing of the guard. He’s “only” 58, having celebrated a birthday in January.

All are white, while future generations of Americans will be defined by their ethnic diversity. (More than half of the Californians under 24 are Latino.)

If you check, you’ll find that younger Americans are less prosperous than their elders. The Public Policy Institute of California says one likely result of these demographic changes will be a growing income divide.

If you want to live to be 100 years old, experts say, diet, exercise and social connections will be key.

The good news is a 5-year-old today has a good chance of living to be 100. The bad news is we have a lot to learn about how an aging population will change our world, economically and otherwise.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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