Aging Baby Boomers and the Effect of Immigration: Rediscovering the Intergenerational Social Contract

By Myers, Dowell | Generations, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Aging Baby Boomers and the Effect of Immigration: Rediscovering the Intergenerational Social Contract


Myers, Dowell, Generations


Current debates about immigration in the United States have focused on what citizens like and dislike about immigrants. But these debates have failed to con- sider how changes in this population as a whole- particularly the aging of the population-interact with immigration. As we know, population aging, led by the first of the giant baby boomer generation who are now passing age 62, has important implications for every aspect of society. Important examples are seen in declining workforce growth, a weakened housing market, and the need for increased government funding of social support programs. In this context we must ask, What is the role of immigration in the aging society, especially in relation to the challenges an aging society brings?

SOARING SENIOR RATIO

The clearest indicators of the challenges that surely lie ahead are the so-called senior ratio, sometimes called the old-age dependency ratio, which refers to the ratio of people age 65 and older to the number of working-age people, and the ratio's trend over time. In traditional societies and rural economies, working age is often described as age 15 and older, but given that today most young people are engaged in educational training or apprenticeship in the job market, and given the hallmark of 65 as retirement age, economists usually define prime working age as from 25 to 64.

Early in the twentieth century in the U.S., there were about ten people age 65 and older for every 100 defined as working age. This senior ratio grew steadily over the century and by the last three decades of the twentieth century had reached a plateau at around twenty-four older people per 100 working-age adults (see Figure 1). The most striking feature of this growth is that it is poised to soar after 2010. In just twenty years' time, the ratio is expected to climb from 24 to 41 elders per 100 working-age adults, an increase of 67 percent. Similar increases will occur in every state in the nation- with the smallest increase (54 percent) found in Oregon, and the largest increases (more than 80 percent) found in northern New England, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska. Sun Belt states that already have many retirees will not increase as extravagantly.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the potential impact of the soaring senior ratio on a number of important realms of activity: the number of retirees from the workforce relative to the number of new replacements, the costs of older adults' service use and income supports relative to tax contributions made by the workingage population, healthcare utilization, retail shopping and leisure pursuits, and the number of potential home sellers relative to buyers. The changes wrought by this rising senior ratio will dominate the domestic policy agenda for the next twenty years and perhaps longer, because the ratio will be sustained at a new, higher plateau after 2030, when all the baby boomers will have entered old age and until their eventual passing.

HOW WILL THE NATION AFFORD FUTURE ENTITLEMENTS?

Growth in entitlement expenditures for Social Security and Medicare, as well as for payments on the current debt and the costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, had created a persistent annual fiscal deficit in the budget of the federal government even before the economic catastrophe of recent months. The aging baby boomers would push total expenditures ever higher in excess of anticipated revenue, if programs and tax laws were to remain in their current form, according to projections carried out in 2007 by the Government Accountability Office. Those 2007 projections estimated that the combined effect of growth in Social Security and Medicare expenditures as a share of the federal budget would be considerable, rising from 37 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2017 and 68 percent in 2030. In light of recent events, the federal budget is being reworked , with nearly two trilion dollars in debt added for the stimulus package and with tax increases in the offing. …

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