Demographics as Destiny or Opportunity?

Many analysts look to demographics as defining our destiny to a larger degree than I’ve ever fully wanted to accept. Sure the implications are important and easy to track. You can count how many people in each generation will need schools, homes, health care and pensions. It would be foolish to ignore this.

An aging population does rearrange the priorities of our economy. If we have to count on baby boomers consuming to lead us out of this recession, we are in for a long recovery. Most of us have the stuff we need. So until we need the money to replace our incomes, more of us may be helping push the U.S. personal savings rate to an all-time high this decade (though still under 5 percent of disposable personal income). A nation’s savings are transformed into investments, possibly in the innovations and new technologies that will renew our economy for the long term.

People also fret a great deal about how to provide healthcare for so many older people. It’s the end-of-life interventions that contribute most to the $2.3 trillion Americans spend on healthcare. What we have been doing is completely unsustainable for those with health insurance and unjust for those without. We already know much of what will work: a greater emphasis on prevention, relying on evidence-based therapies, and wringing the inefficiencies and negligence out of the system. We just might finally get on with these solutions as part of healthcare reform in the Obama administration. These reforms plus unprecedented investments in the science of living longer, healthier lives challenge the assumption that we are doomed to see healthcare expenditures rise dramatically with an aging population.

Another conundrum is how to subsidize these longer years of life when Social Security is headed to insolvency and fewer people have defined benefit pension plans, or if they do, they are underfunded or at risk in economic shifts. We do have great challenges ahead to figure out how to redefine retirement and our elder years as meaningful and productive seasons of our lives. The innovations are starting to emerge: changing benefit policies to support phased retirement, recruiting seniors to more meaningful forms of volunteerism, and offering more services to support aging in place.

I even see long needed changes in attitudes toward younger generations. More organizations have decided they cannot leave future recruitment and development to chance. They are intervening with programs to attract and train younger people for the opportunities their elders will soon be vacating. Before the recession forced hiring freezes and downsizing on many organizations, many associations were quite interested in succession planning for volunteer and staff leaders.

Major demographic shifts do change our priorities but they will only define our destiny if we fail to act on the opportunities they bring. If we are seeing a global demographic earthquake as one economist wrote, let’s hope what shakes loose from the system are any beliefs and practices that restrict human possibility and dignity at any age.