The Invisible Revolution: How Aging Is Quietly Changing America

A rapidly growing elderly population might be the most important yet inevitable feature of the country’s economic future. Why aren’t voters hearing more about it?

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

In some respects, the 2016 election has been a steampunk campaign. Donald Trump, in particular, has proposed a vision of the future that starts in the distant past. He thrills rallies with promises to revive the pre-1970s steel industry and promises a bright future for coal miners.

This may be a successful framing device on the campaign trail. But Trump's tone here is starkly opposed to his reputation as a business genius. The typical chief executive is intensely present-focused (sometimes even to a fault). Whereas Trump promises the past and calls it future, most business leaders prefer to talk about the future as if it’s the present, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who conjure images of Mars colonization and the instant delivery of any product.

What if presidential candidates took a CEO approach to future-planning? Perhaps they'd spend less time talking about America’s old industries and more time talking about America’s old people.

Of the many significant forces shaping the U.S. economy—including globalization, automation, and housing supply—none is so inevitable and invisible as the sheer march of time for today’s adults. In the 1950s, at the height of the U.S. manufacturing supremacy, less than 10 percent of the country was older than 65. That share will double to 20 percent by 2050. The greying of America will touch every station of economic and political life: the size of the labor force, the jobs the economy will require, the ethnic makeup of the country, and the productivity of the workforce. In short, aging affects everything.

Start with the economy. First, as a workforce ages, it becomes less productive. Economists aren't sure why, but a recent study found that a 10 percent increase in the fraction of the population ages 60+ "decreases the growth rate of GDP per capita by 5.5 percent.” Slowing productivity growth will be particularly challenging because as the country gets older, a larger share of the native born population will be retired. Medicare, Social Security, and other programs for the elderly require lots of tax income from a large and vibrant working force.

The simplest way for Washington to think about the future is often as an accounting exercise. For this reason, many discussions about the future of governance are focused on the debt, which is appropriate to a degree. There’s no question that without changes to taxes, spending, growth, or health care inflation, deficits will grow in the near future due to the increased health-insurance demands of the elderly.

But the future is more than the sum of its federal budget deficits. The aging of the population will also change the kinds of jobs Americans will do.

Although both campaigns occasionally like to pretend that manufacturing is the backbone of the U.S. workforce, manufacturing jobs are projected to decline by one million jobs in the next ten years. The fastest growing occupations of the next decade are all in health—personal care aides, registered nurses, and home health aides. These jobs couldn’t be more different from the prototypical mid-century steel worker. Underpaid and without a strong union, home health aides make an average wage of about $23,000, according to the New York Times’ Binyamin Appelbaum. "Instead of white men who make stuff, the group is increasingly made up of minority women who serve people,” he writes. Indeed, immigrants account for almost a third of the in-home health-care workforce, and one in five of them are undocumented, by one estimate.

This speaks directly to a second-order effect of an aging country, which is the diversification of the workforce. In 2015, the majority of children born in the U.S. were non-white. By 2035, immigration will add twice as many people as natural births and deaths to the population. By the time today’s toddlers are in their 30s, white workers will be a minority of the labor force.

This divide could shape politics, particularly around the issue of work and redistribution. Today the rich and mostly white upper- and upper-middle class pay the majority of federal income taxes, which often support programs to help lower-income minorities. This contributes to a “makers" vs “takers" narrative that often skirts dangerously close to dividing the country on racial lines. But within a generation or two, this picture will change. As America’s offices diversify faster than its retirement communities, the minority-white labor force will be supporting the majority-white retirees.

It is not immediately clear what the implications of this would be. The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein has written about several gaps that define the U.S. electorate—for example, between college grads and high-school-only grads. But as the elderly, white, less educated, and retired population grows, perhaps another cultural gap will open between a mosaic workforce and a more monochromatic generation of Boomers.

Does the inevitable aging of America carry obvious public-policy recommendations? The need for home health aides should factor into the conversation about immigration, yet I have heard nothing on the campaign trail about how the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. currently relies on a steady supply of immigrants. The rise in health-care spending for the elderly will force debates about the most humane and affordable way to care for those who need it. The next presidents may not serve as grand architects of public health policy, as Obama did. Rather they may have to serve as tinkerers and handymen, making targeted fixes to keep the house from falling apart. As Americans live longer, poor and middle class retirees will need more savings. The U.S. government could discuss an expansion of Social Security for the poorest, or new ways to force—or “nudge”—even low-income Americans to save enough money to last their extended lifetimes.

Politicians and political journalists tend to focus on sudden violations of the public’s expectations, not slow changes or ordinary events. For example, none of the 30,000 auto casualties each year make breaking national news, but a terrorist attack killing several dominates for days. The greying of a generation is slow and ordinary. For that reason, it can go unnoticed. But perhaps political leaders could afford to do the boring thing and talk about the country as it is, and as it will soon be, rather than as it was, and will never be again.