By 2029, one-fifth of the U.S. population will be 65 or older, and many of those 76 million or so post-war baby boomers — perhaps up to 50 million of them — will be exiting the workforce over the same period.
They’ll consume more medical care, even as their collective retirement will remove hundreds of thousands of doctors and nurses from the field. They’ll need retirement planning services, particularly as they are likely to live into their 80s. They’ll be downsizing their homes.
In short, the oncoming “silver tsunami” will be a potentially seismic force upon the regional, U.S. and world economies — most developed countries are actually far grayer than America — in ways good, and bad.
How bad? Depends on who you ask. There’s no doubt that the baby boom was historically big by U.S. and world standards, but some analyses suggest the impact of the retirements won’t be as dramatic as has often been predicted. Given that Americans continue to work well past 65 and that tens of millions of boomers never entered the workforce in the first place, it’s possible that the annual U.S. retirement rate will stay relatively constant or tick up modestly over the next two decades.
But even if they keep working, boomers have other challenges ahead of them, and few know what to expect of this “silver tsunami” cohort better than
Q. The leading edge of the baby boom, the ones born between 1946 and 1955, are already retiring, or thinking about it. What does that mean for the local workforce?
A. “We have about 130,000 people who are between the ages of 55 and 64 [in
Q. Are they prepared for retirement?
A. “People feel more insecure about their future financial status, including how they might do in retirement. One consequence of that [is] people are delaying retirement.”
Q. What about Pittsburgh-area seniors?
A. “Compared to the U.S. overall, our seniors report feeling better prepared. They have relatively little debt to worry about … it’s a legacy of having an older population that still benefited from pension programs … low cost of living factors in, in a big way. [You] don’t see the massive gentrification that you see in other cities, which drives up prices drastically.”
Q. But the boomers themselves …
“Seventeen percent of current workers [aged 55-64] report that their current level of debt is higher than it was five years ago. … [The economy] has been tough in a real sense, in that people have had little increases in pay. They may have lost money during that [recession] period, as a result of investments they made.”
Q. As baby boomers retire, how does that affect the regional economy?
“It is important to appreciate that older people contribute about
Q. Presumably, business opportunities arise as boomers retire and as our country gets grayer.
“If you look at the proliferation of retirement facilities in the region, I think that speaks to an opportunity people have picked up on. [There are] many more high-profile, high-end types of facilities [that] didn’t exist 10-15 years ago.”
Q. What about opportunities specific to Pittsburgh?
A. “This region in particular has an interest and experience in developing technologies that might be of assistance and value to older persons with disabilities. For about 10 years now, Carnegie Mellon and Pitt have been working together, [and] the long-term vision for the region is that it might become a major player in an industry that develops technologies for older persons.”
A. “Lots of coaching technologies, smart apps. We’re currently testing a [diagnostic] health kiosk that’s being used in a number of facilities in the region … Lots of devices being developed at CMU [are] relevant to rehabilitation. Stroke rehabilitation, for example — using computer games as away to induce older persons to make movements that are part of a post-stroke rehab program.”
Q. Your aging report noted the “dependency ratio” in
A. “The issue of who provides informal care to the elderly [presents a problem]. By that, we mean typically family care, [often] an adult daughter caring for a parent … baby boomers have relatively few children [available] to provide that informal care. It raises the question who is going to fill that gap.”
Q. And who will fill it?
A. “One answer might be immigrants … in big population centers, [it’s] often immigrants that pay that role. In
A. “We don’t have the available immigrant population. That’s really not an option … so how do you pay for those services, particularly in a context where formal health care providers are cutting back? … There is a coalescing of forces.”
Q. And what happens when the boomers, many of whom may have a parent or two alive in their 80s or 90s, themselves require assistance?
A. “So you have them moving into their own retirement years, with the high likelihood that they still have a parent who’s alive, who’s highly disabled, who needs care. They are entering their own life phase where [they] have health and disability problems, but at the same time are pressed to provide care for a parent … It’s a pretty overwhelming problem.”
Q. Why can’t doctors and professional caregivers fill that void?
A. “We have very few health care providers — primary care physicians, nurses — who are trained in geriatric care. That will become worse as the proportion of the older population increases. There is no sign of physician being [increasingly] interested in geriatrics … it doesn’t pay, it’s not sexy, it’s hard work.
“One consequence of all that is that there are much bigger pushes in terms of [medical schools] forcing people to get exposure in geriatrics, regardless of what their ultimate area of specialization is … Health care [is] primarily about taking care of old people, people with multiple chronic conditions.”
Q. It’s a pretty depressing picture for baby boomers.
A. “One of the nice things about aging is that, [If] you look at depression levels among middle-age and older persons, older persons are doing much better than the baby boomers. That’s a typical age-related phenomenon. Older people are good at learning to regulate their lives in ways to maximize positive life experiences [and] do things that are enjoyable, rather than doing things you have to do.”
Q. Why is the 55-64 cohort so depressed? Are boomers just a self-obsessed, inward looking generation?
A. “No, it’s an age-related phenomenon. Having the responsibility, the work life, all contribute to more difficult life situations. Having kids in college, [the] responsibility you have in that 55-64 age range [could] contribute to a more negative life over all, subjectively speaking … some of those constraints are removed when you move into old age.”
Q. What can we expect of the tsunami politically?
A. “Given the large number of baby boomers, to what extent are they going to be able to influence policies and services that might be legislated for themselves? If you’re in a position to vote on things that make your life easier or better, are you going to end up doing that? Could the baby boomers coalesce into a voting bloc that behaves coherently, and in their own self-interest? And what impact would that have on our society?”
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