Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Aging US Workforce

Funny how trends and themes change over time. Just over a decade ago the big rage was "freedom 55", the idea that you could retire at 55 and live out your golden years. But after two big bubbles followed by crashes, the new theme is working well into the traditional "retirement" years. Here's a graph from the Calculated Risk blog showing the trend:

Click to Enlarge

What I find shocking is that the number of 75+ people who work has nearly doubled in the last 20 years.

What angers me the most is that in the late 1960s there were social commentators who claimed that the biggest problem in the future was "what to do with all the free time?". They proclaimed that the US had entered the era of "leisure" because automation had brought economic good times that would never end. But 50+ years later, the same class of "commentator" is now trying to convince everybody that the future is bleak, everybody will have to work until they are 80, that retirement benefits have to be cut, that leisure is a thing of the past.

I especially remember Robert Theobald coming to lecture my college in 1967 telling us that the greatest problem facing "the youth of today" was the coming affluence and leisure time. I got up and left the lecture. I had never heard such nonsense. Nobody I knew was worried about "too much leisure" and certainly "affluence" was not a problem I saw anybody grappling with. But the guy was serious, he was on the lecture circuit, and he was being taken seriously. That has helped innoculate me from a long line of "futurists" and "doomsayers" and "experts" who tried to tell me that black was white when I could clearly see with my own eyes that black was still black and white was still white. But I continue to be amazed that many, many people are led on strange journeys by these modern day Pied Pipers.

It is pretty clear to me that productivity and automation have made great strides. But these "human engineers" failed to (a) understand the depth of poverty in the US in the 1960s and (b) understand the extent of desire for "the good life" that would let humble people want to have their own McMansion, big cars, fancy vacations, etc. There really is no limit to the desire for more wealth. I will never lose a sleepless night worried about "too much leisure" or too little work because people have so much wealth they no longer work. The urgent problem today is getting more work, but this will pass. Good times will return. But I seriously doubt I will live to see a day when people decide they are "wealthy enough" an just quit working. It isn't going to happen.

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