It's no secret that the demographic profile of the United States is growing older at a rapid pace. While the U.S. population is projected to grow just 8% between 2015 and 2025, the number of older Americans ages 70 to 84 will skyrocket 50%.1
With roughly 75 million members, baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) make up the largest generation in U.S. history. As a group, boomers have longer life expectancies and had fewer children than previous generations.2
Now, after dominating the workforce for nearly 40 years, boomers are retiring at a rate of around 1.2 million a year, about three times more than a decade ago.3
Though the economy has continued to improve since the Great Recession, gross domestic product (GDP) growth has been weak compared with past recoveries. A number of economists believe that demographic changes may be the primary reason.4
The lower birth rates in recent decades generally mean that fewer young people are joining the workforce, so the consumer spending that fuels economic expansion and job creation could take a hit. When young people earn enough money to strike out on their own, marry, and start families, it typically spurs additional spending — on places to live, furniture and appliances, vehicles, and other products and services that are needed to set up a new household.
On the other hand, when people retire, they typically reduce their spending and focus more on preserving their savings. Moreover, retirees' spending habits are often different from when they were working. As a group, retirees tend to avoid taking on debt, have more equity built up in their homes, and may be able to downsize or move to places with lower living costs. More spending is devoted to covering health-care costs as people age.
If a larger, older population is spending less and the younger population is too small to drive up consumer spending, weaker overall demand for products and services could restrain GDP growth and inflation over the long term. Less borrowing by consumers and businesses could also put downward pressure on interest rates.
A new normal?
The onslaught of retiring baby boomers has long been expected to threaten the viability of Social Security and Medicare, mainly because both are funded by payroll taxes on current workers. But this may not be the only challenge.
A 2016 working paper by Federal Reserve economists concluded that declining fertility and labor force participation rates, along with increases in life expectancies, accounted for a 1.25 percentage point decline in the natural rate of real interest and real GDP growth since 1980. Furthermore, the same demographic trends are expected to remain a structural impediment to economic growth for years to come.5
Put simply, a nation's potential GDP is a product of the number of workers times the productivity (output) per worker, and the U.S. workforce is shrinking in relation to the total population.
The labor force participation rate — the percentage of the civilian labor force age 16 and older who are working or actively looking for work — peaked at 67.3% in early 2000, not coincidentally the last time GDP grew by more than 4%. The participation rate has dropped steadily since then; in August 2017, it was 62.9%. This reflects lower birth rates, increased college enrollment, some men in their prime working years dropping out of the labor force, and large numbers of retiring baby boomers.6
Many economists acknowledge that U.S. population trends are a force to be reckoned with, but the potential impact is still up for debate. Some argue that labor shortages could drive up wages and spending relatively soon, followed by higher growth, inflation, and interest rates — until automated technologies start replacing larger numbers of costly human workers.7
Even if demographic forces continue to restrain growth, it might not spell doom for workforce productivity and the economy. Another baby boom would likely be a catalyst for consumer spending. Family-friendly policies such as paid maternity leave and day-care assistance could provide incentives for women with children to remain in the workforce. It's also possible that a larger percentage of healthy older workers may delay retirement — a trend that is already developing — and continue to add their experience and expertise to the economy.8
1, 3 The Conference Board, February 24, 2017
2 The Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2017
4-5 Federal Reserve, 2016
6, 8 The Financial Times, October 25, 2016
7 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016-2017, Bureau of Economic Analysis 2017