The Demographic Horror Story and Other Children’s Tales

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Written by Dean Baker   
Friday, 29 March 2013 10:20

The Very Serious People in Washington have been running around arguing that the country should be very worried about the aging of the population. The story is that we face an enormous crisis because the ratio of workers to retirees is projected to fall from 2.8 to 1 in 2013 to just 2.0 to 1 over the next two decades. This declining ratio is supposed to mean that our children will face an enormous burden in supporting a rapidly growing population of retirees.

While this projection produces much hand wringing and head nodding among the Very Serious People (VSP), fans of arithmetic know that it provides little basis for concern. The reason for the lack of concern is often given by the VSPs themselves. When pushing the scare story they often throw in the tidbit that the ratio of workers to retirees used to be 5 to 1 back in the 1960s.

Of course the country is far richer on average today than it was in the 1960s even though we have much lower ratio of workers to retirees. The secret is productivity growth. Output per worker hour is more than twice as much in 2013 as it was in the 1960s. As a result, we can both have a larger share of output diverted to supporting retirees and have higher living standards for both workers and retirees.

The same story holds going forward. In 20 years average output per worker is conservatively estimated to be more than 40 percent higher than it is today. This means that even if workers were to see an increase in their payroll tax of 2 or 3 percentage points (almost certainly more than would actually be the case – we can also raise the cap on taxable wages) they would still have much higher after-tax wages in 2033 than they do today.

Furthermore, the longer-term story looks even brighter. After 2030 the demographic picture actually improves slightly as us pesky baby boomers die off and then is projected to worsen very gradually through the rest of the century as the life expectancies continue to rise.

This means that the gains of productivity growth will be able to go to active workers in these decades with no additional burdens due to demographics. That would mean wages could rise by another 15 percent by 2043 and another 15 percent on top of this by 2053. There is nothing close to the story of impoverishing our children pushed by the VSPs.

At this point alert readers are jumping up and down yelling that most workers have not been seeing the gains of productivity growth over the last three decades due to the upward redistribution of income over this period. If this trend continues then workers will have little increase in before-tax wages to offset any tax increases that might be needed to support Social Security.  

This is completely true and precisely the point. The real threat to our children’s living standards has nothing to do with the possibility that Social Security might require additional tax revenue in the decades ahead. The threat to their living standards is the risk that the upward redistribution of the last three decades will continue for the decades into the future. If this proves to be the case, then the top 1-2 percent of the population will get almost all of the gains of economic growth and most of our children and grandchildren will see nothing.

That is why the obsessive focus of the VSPs on the demographics is so pernicious. It distracts the public from the issues that are most important to their living standards and the living standards of their children and grandchildren. Furthermore, if they accomplish their stated goal, they will undermine one of the few sources of security that ordinary workers still enjoy in today’s economy.

So next time you hear someone giving you a solemn lesson on the demographics of Social Security tell them to learn a little arithmetic. Maybe if the VSPs picked up an old textbook we could have a more informed debate.

This post originally appeared as part of Daily Kos' Social Security Defenders blogathon.