The secrets to long life are exercise and a generous social-welfare program.

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The Politics of Aging

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Who will take care of all the old people?

That's the theme of Nicholas Eberstadt's latest piece on demographics, which I highly recommend to all of you. The core problem of the welfare state is that it relieves people of the need for family to take care of them, but it does not relieve society of the need for caretakers. In fact, because there's evidence that more generous social-security systems cause people to reduce their fertility, you can argue that these systems are undercutting the very actuarial basis upon which they depend.

The effect is what social-security systems are struggling with around the world: As the ratio of workers to retirees declines, it gets harder and harder to raise the tax revenue to cover benefits. Though Americans talk anxiously about the fiscal health of our systems, international pension-reform wonks actually look enviously at our system, which contains fewer of the incentives for earlier retirement that plague many countries.

But our demographic transition is not just a problem of pension math. There's also the problem of what it does to economic growth as society ages. As workforce growth slows, so does gross domestic product growth. In theory, this can be made up with greater productivity growth. But productivity growth is moving in the wrong direction -- and because older people tend to be more risk-averse as workers and investors, that too may be a natural result of an aging society.

And, of course, there is the question of who will provide the actual hands-on care that people need. Here, the usual solution proposed is immigration. There are a couple of problems with that. The first is that everywhere else is undergoing the same demographic transition as we are, so the limitless supply of young foreigners may dry up as aging parents require them to be nearer to home and family capital gets concentrated upon a few people rather than dispersed among many children.

But there's another problem, which is that old people are often vulnerable. This is why stories of abuses in nursing homes are so common; it is not that the state doesn't care about the people in its charge, but that "the state" does not actually provide the care -- individual people do, some of whom are badly motivated. And incentives get very tangled when strangers are in charge of caring for frail people who may be experiencing cognitive decline.

People around the world embrace the convenience and freedom of lives without a passel of needy relations who require lots of care. But we ourselves are only here because someone put years of effort into keeping us alive ... and most of us will need someone else to do so at the other end of our lives. The state can do many things. But it cannot produce those people itself. It cannot really substitute for them, either.

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To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net