Aging of Industrial World Calls for Changes

By Smith, Geoffrey | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

Aging of Industrial World Calls for Changes


Smith, Geoffrey, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Senior citizens will need to be competitive and creative in the years ahead if the industrial world is to offset generational imbalances caused by low fertility rates and longer life spans, according to experts at a Washington conference last week.

In the world's richest countries - where fertility rates have been steadily declining and the large number of people born during the post-World War II baby boom is nearing retirement age - the future will be societies where a substantial portion of the population is over 50. A recurring theme of the conference was how to sustain productivity when the labor force begins to dwindle.

The fastest-growing population segment in the industrial world is the elderly - loosely defined as people 65 and older - who now comprise 15 percent of its population. By 2030, the elderly will be one-fourth the population in developed countries.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies sponsored the two-day conference, which featured the top members of the Commission on Global Aging: Walter Mondale, former Democratic senator from Minnesota, vice president in the Carter administration then ambassador to Japan, and Ryutaro Hashimoto, a member of Japan's national Diet and former prime minister.

"For the first time since the Black Plague, more people will be leaving the labor force than entering it," Mr. Mondale said in opening the conference, highlighting a situation that will prevail in the societies of Europe, the United States and Japan as the 21st century advances.

CAREER DEFINITIONS SHIFT

Definitions of the labor force and the traditional retirement age will broaden in the coming century, experts said. Several of the speakers envisioned societies where workers may have two or three careers and will work much later into their lives.

With labor shortages expected to be especially acute in Europe and Japan, which sharply restrict immigration compared with the United States, raising the productivity of each worker is seen as the key to bridging the labor gap that will be left by decades of declining fertility rates.

"Increasing the productive potential of the population is the only way to deal with the situation," said Lucio Pench of the European Commission, the administrative branch of the European Union.

Extending the retirement age is a move that many countries hope will help fill the productivity void. People will be living longer because of advances in medicine and able to work into their 70s and perhaps their 80s. In Japan, where the population is expected to peak in 2007 and then decline for the foreseeable future, older workers are already beginning to filter into the work force.

Statistics on labor-force participation in the member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development - the "rich men's club" of countries that dominate the world economy - show that Japan has a high rate of employment relative to the United States and Europe and indicate that older Japanese are willing to work beyond the official retirement age.

MARKET FORCES AT WORK

Atsushi Seike, a professor of labor economics at Keio University in Japan, said encouraging the employment of older people is important.

"After the first decade of the 21st century, market forces will fully promote the employment of older people" in Japan, he said.

Female workers are another factor for boosting production, according to many experts, and their higher participation in the labor force will be integral to the economies of the industrial world.

The United States will be less affected by shortages in labor, in part because its fertility rate is not expected to decline as rapidly, but also because it can expect a steady stream of immigrants to keep production high.

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