How longer lives will affect our workforce

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Mark Miller

In 2005, there were 270,000 people over age 100 in the world — a figure the United Nations expects will explode to 2.3 million by 2040 due to improvements in nutrition, health and healthcare. By that year, the U.S. Census Bureau expects the proportion of people over age 65 will more than double from 2008 levels, to 14 percent of the world’s population.

The topic of aging in America often prompts discussion and worry about how we’ll manage in our graying country. Author Ted Fishman puts those questions into a broader context in his recent book, Shock of Gray (Scribner, 2010).

The book offers a thoughtful — and often surprising — analysis of how aging will drive globalization and immigration patterns in the years ahead, and determine the economic destiny of nations.

But while Fishman is thinking global, he reports local. Fishman explains the trends by painting detailed portraits of places in the world already feeling the effects of aging.

His on-the-ground reporting includes portraits of the hollowed-out economy of Rockford, Ill., and the retirement mecca of Sarasota, Fla., alongside dispatches from Spain, Japan and China.

Aging fuels immigration

And Fishman has concluded that the news about aging isn’t all bad. “It’s a wonderful circumstance overall, since we get to live longer, but we have to adjust to a reality humankind has never faced before,” he said.

“Americans who reach age 60 have a pretty good chance of getting to 95. Our aging country faces a swelling number of dependent elders at the upper reaches of the lifespan.

“Just as it will be more common for people in their late 60s and 70s to work, it will also be common for those older workers to have living parents to tend to.

“Our workforce over 50 will grow to three times its current size, but the number of younger workers will stay nearly constant. Virtually all the expansion of the U.S. workforce will be in the upper age range.”

This lopsided picture helps explain why we will experience a growing globalization of a workforce devoted to providing caregiving services, Fishman argued.

“It’s very likely that older Americans will have very small families to look after them when they need it. And often, the families are separated by big geographical distances.

“Now, many families rely on immigrants to provide care services family members themselves cannot, or will not, take on. This is one way that aging is a kind of global enterprise.”

“Robust immigration into the U.S. helps America age less quickly than most other aging countries,” he added. “But the numbers of young immigrants will never be enough to reverse the aging of our population.”

Shock of Gray grew out of themes Fishman explored in his first book, the best-selling China Inc. (Scribner, 2005). That book explained how China leverages its young, inexpensive workforce to fuel its rapid rise as a global economic superpower.

Fishman expands that analysis in Shock of Gray well beyond China, describing a sort of rolling globalization of the workforce driven by aging.

Midlife job loss

“The built-in costs of an aging workforce are higher,” he explained. “With an aging workforce, employers find ways to make their workforce more flexible in ways that avoid the age-related costs.

“Firm-specific knowledge becomes less important, so there are fewer reasons to give raises. And employers start thinking about where they can automate or shift jobs abroad.

“Currently, the standard retirement ages in every developed country — when workers can start to get Social Security — are higher than the ages that people actually leave their primary jobs. People are encouraged to leave; they are bought out, made redundant, or left in the cold when their jobs move.

For Americans closing in on retirement, Fishman sees major implications in two areas: caregiving and job loss at midlife.

“If you’re already retired, you may have children entering that catch-up period in their 50s where their employment is newly imperiled.

“So if you were counting on help from them, you might get more time from them but less money! I think the environment will push more family members who are available into the caregiving role.

“And for workers at mid-career, it’s the flip of that: You have to try to ensure that your labor isn’t devalued. You need to make sure that you have a good inventory of skills and a strong social network before you find yourself in an employment crisis.”

The best way to avoid that crisis, Fishman argued, is to focus on developing differentiated skills. “We have a large group of workers who haven’t kept their skills current,” he said. “You might be a great machinist in your type of factory, but your factory may have a great outsourcing strategy. So you need a more generalizable skill.”

Mark Miller is the author of The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security: Practical Strategies for Money, Work and Living (John Wiley & Sons/Bloomberg Press, June 2010). Subscribe to Mark’s free weekly eNewsletter at Contact him at

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