Our future depends on old people
…but we have to think differently about the economy
When people talk about demographic trends, they generally mean decline. Some believe that population ageing means our pension system will collapse and there will be no more economic growth. These people urge everyone to have more babies to save the economy. Others who are more concerned about the environment urge us to accept the end of economic growth and to stop having babies, or else we might soon have no viable planet to inhabit.
But it turns out the former and the latter both rely on the same vision of the economy which they see as largely industrial, dependent on the production and consumption of resource-intensive goods, in which the elderly only play a secondary role. The former and the latter do not see that we could make future growth different. It doesn’t have to be what it was in the 20th century.
Throughout the 20th century, the vibrancy of our demography was an engine of growth. The young worked, paid taxes and consumed more than the “elderly”. Indeed after a certain age, most households do not need new equipment. Only once in a while they may need to renew some of the things they already own (when these break down). In other words, the elderly did not contribute as much as the young because of how little they spent on what drove the economy (manufactured goods).
In the 21st century, however, that vision may have become partly obsolete. Our aspirations have changed, and so has consumption. Many people aspire to consume fewer resource-intensive goods (in particular, we already consume fewer cars in large cities). Instead, we tend to consume more services and experiences. “Green growth”, a form of growth that uses resources in a sustainable manner and provides an alternative to typical industrial economic growth, now seems imaginable. Growth can be fuelled by recycling, cleaning, sorting, caring, and all proximity services that strengthen our social fabric.
And so our century’s “good life” doesn’t look quite like that of the last century. We used to dream of a comfortable, fully-equipped suburban home, with all modern appliances and two or more cars for the household. Today, we’d rather have a city-centre flat (without a car), eat organic, locally sourced products, and meditate and go on yoga retreats.
This is a caricature, of course, but it’s nevertheless a revealing one. In one case, growth destroys resources. In the other, it renews them. Also, it may be said that those dreams belong to a wealthy urban elite. This is true for now, but historically the lifestyle of the wealthy has always influenced the lifestyle of the middle classes within one generation.
In this context, population ageing provides an opportunity to transition to a new, greener economy. In 2050, the median age in the UK is projected to be 46.2 (and it might actually be higher if the UK closes its borders post-Brexit) and the proportion of people aged 85 and over is expected to double. The resulting loneliness epidemic, the increased need for medical care and domestic services will create new jobs and activities. As we grow older, we consume more and more services and we value more durable goods and sustainable activities. It’s not mass produced, resource intensive goods that we will need more of, but medical care, yoga classes, haircuts, massages, cleaning services, and entertainment.
The workplace is set to change too. When the economy was shaped by the mass production and consumption of industrial goods, work was fashioned by scientific management. It was a form of alienation that you could only hope to be liberated from through retirement. But if we succeed in redefining “value” and work around the principles of craftsmanship — autonomy, responsibility and creativity — then we may want to work longer to repair the world and build new social ties.
It’s all a virtuous circle. If we work longer in a reinvented workplace, then we’ll have more buying power to consume more services and goods that can make the world greener and gentler. But to trigger this transition, we need to do away with the ageism that afflicts the workforce. In too many workplaces, even 45-year-olds are deemed “old”. Yet it is an outrageously false view of our cognitive abilities. In truth you can learn and create at every age. You can develop new neural connections, forge new social ties, and even build muscle after the age of 70.
As our society ages, it’s time we realised that age is a gift, not a curse. The transition of our economy to a more artisanal paradigm will help us understand that our future depends on old people. Only we need to first reinvent both work and consumption.
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