Persico Challenge:  Issue Number 3 – What Will Be the Impact from Increased Life Expectancies Around the World?

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This is the third of three “Challenge” questions that my friend Jane Fritz and I agreed to reply to.  We each sent three questions to the other and we had 12 months to reply to all three questions.  I answered Jane’s first question on Feb 19th of this year.  (American Exceptionalism).  I answered her second question on April 3rd (How Can We Save the Environment)  This is Jane’s 3rd and final question followed by my reply.  I think Jane “cheated” a little on this one since you may notice that there are actually several questions connected to the issue that Jane describes.

Jane’s Third and Final Question:

Life expectancy around the world has increased 10-30 years from 1950 alone, depending on the country.  People born in developed and many developing countries in 2020 can expect to live – on average – to be at least 80 years old.  At the same time, the birthrate is decreasing around the world even faster than was projected.  India’s recent news of its birth rate falling below replacement levels is a case in point.  What will such significant changes in population demographics have on people 30 years from now, when the baby boomers still alive will be 85-105 years old?  What will the impact be on children?  On young adults?  On mid-career adults?  On retirees?  When will people be able to retire when 30% or more of the population is over 65?  Any position(s) on any part of this question is acceptable!

There are several curious things about the issues that Jane raises.  Let me state them as a sort of preamble to my answer.

  1. Much of the increased longevity is due to falling infant mortality which raises the overall average longevity. Looking at a research study that examined people over age of sixty-five found that longevity has continued to increase even when isolating the more elderly.

“The researchers looked at birth and death data for people above age 65 from 1960-2010. They found that the average age of death in those who live to be older than 65 increased by three years in every 25-year period, which means that people can expect to live about six years longer than their grandparents, on average.”   — Lifespan is continuing to increase regardless of socioeconomic factors, Stanford researchers find

  1. Much of the reason for falling birth rates is correlated with increased incomes throughout the world. Data shows that:

“Countries that experience a decline in their birth rate sometimes realize a demographic dividend, an economic boost that can last years or even decades.  Improving health care and boosting literacy have been shown to break the cycle of extreme poverty and extreme fertility.”  — The Relationship Between Fertility and National Income

There are many exceptions to the above finding.  In addition, the age distribution of the population also plays a role in the wealth of a country.  By and large, countries with more elderly people tend to have higher average incomes than those with younger people.

  1. Happiness does not seem to be correlated with higher incomes.

“The results were almost universally consistent across the United States and much of the world,” Aaker says.  “Among low-income people, having a sense of meaning in one’s life is more closely associated with overall happiness.”A Global Look at the Connections Between Happiness, Income, and Meaning

  1. Several studies I have recently seen show that income inequality leads to lower levels of reported happiness. The greater the income inequality, the less happy people are.

“While happiness did track the level of economic development across these 16 advanced nations, the results changed when inequality was added to the equation.  Higher levels of inequality led to lower levels of happiness, even in the most economically advanced nations. In fact, the researchers found that the percentage of respondents who said they were very happy was inversely correlated with income inequality (with a negative correlation of −.618).”Income Inequality Leads to Less Happy People

Relationship-between-affluence-and-happiness-in-137-countries

Demographics is an extremely important element of social change.  I bring up some of the above points because the questions that Jane raises are quite involved.  Economics, wealth, social justice, politics, technology, environmental factors, and a universal desire for happiness all play a role in social change that in many cases are just as important as demographics.

Experts also attribute social change to ideological factors and the “great man/woman” theory.  This latter theory posits that social changes are more impacted by leadership issues than any other factors.  We can certainly find evidence to support any one of these theories.  My raising these issues is from a belief that we cannot understand the world by simply looking at any one set of factors.  The world is much more complex than humans or even computer models are able to portray.

FoundationOfEducation_SocialChange_Factors

So, without any more “excuses”, how will the world change as birth rates fall?  I think the major impacts will be due to a rising standard of living.  The evidence seems to show that standards of living the world over are rising.  In addition, media and technology link the world in a mutual bond that is tighter than any that ever existed in history.  This will mean rising expectations for a better life for many formerly poor and impoverished people.  My caveat here is that with the environment changing more rapidly than was predicted by climate models, I am unsure how rising incomes will help anyone escape the ever more extreme weather events that beset us daily.  In the past, the rich were always more shielded from such events than the poor.  The poor lived in the valleys while the rich lived in the mountain tops.

A rising standard of living is not necessarily  a panacea or a pathway to happiness as I have shown above with the research on happiness.  If ideology is such that people expect more than they will get, rising standards of living could lead to more of the type of dysfunctions that we see in the USA.  Despite some of the highest income levels in the world, the USA does very poorly on a number of social indicators.  In terms of health, the USA shows very poorly:

  • The United States ranks No. 33 out of 36 OECD countries in infant mortality
  • Among the 33 OECD countries with self-reported obesity data available, the United States ranks last
  • The U.S. life expectancy at birth of 78.6 years ranks No. 28 out of the 36 OECD countries

2019 Annual Report

Health is a major factor affecting the quality of life we live, and how happy we are.  Incomes and affluence have not been distributed equally in the USA where income inequality is some of the highest in the world.  It would seem that not only does income inequality lead to less happiness but it also impacts health outcomes.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States’ Gini coefficient was 48.9% in 2020. This ranks as the country’s highest Gini in at least the past 50 years.  The U.S. also has the highest Gini coefficient among the G7 nations. The top 1% of earners in the United States earn about 40 times more than the bottom 90% of earners, and roughly 33 million U.S. workers earn less than $10 per hour, placing a family of four below the poverty line.

The Gini coefficient, or Gini index, is a statistical measure of income inequality developed by Italian statistician Corrado Gini in 1912.  There are several caveats and limitations to the Gini coefficient and if you are interested you can find more detail about the coefficient and its limitations at:  World Population Review.

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If the world can adapt to the coming climate changes and if the world will allow incomes and affluence to be more equitable, I think the declining birthrates may be a blessing.  In the sixties, I was part of a movement called ZPG.  This stood for Zero Population Growth.  We believed that stopping population growth was key to living within the limited resources that we thought the planet provided.  The movement was never very popular.  Those pushing for unlimited growth and unlimited development continually won battles for more development and more growth. Those that profited from this growth sold the American people that growth is essential to development and that we would all be happier with more growth.  This has been a bigger lie bought by more Americans than the election lie that Trump has tried to sell.

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Bottom line, lower birthrates may lead to increased affluence which may lead to better health care which may lead to happier people.  However, the happiness factor as well as health care factor will depend on how the affluence is distributed.  If it is distributed as it is in the USA, it will lead to increased social fractioning and decreased levels of happiness and health care.  All of this will be mitigated by more extreme and more volatile weather events.  If the “stress” level of the world increases, we will see more violence and warfare as nations fight for the level of affluence that they believe they deserve or as they try to maintain a level of affluence at the expense of nations that are trying to get their share of the affluence.

Thanks Jane for a great set of questions.  I only wish I could have done more justice to them.  I fear my answers lack the perspicacity to fully address the complexity of so many of the issues that you have raised.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jane Fritz
    Jun 20, 2022 @ 09:42:34

    Wow, John, you have done this topic justice and then some! You’ve touched on some incredibly important points that I hadn’t thought of in this context and will have to get back to. And you didn’t get into the economic concern of how a society handles an over-abundance of people who are no longer in the workplace because of age. But your focus on happiness is more important. I will get back to you with further comments. Great job!

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Jun 20, 2022 @ 12:16:02

      Thanks Jane, I appreciate your compliment. I thought I might have let you down on this one. As Dr. Deming used to say in his seminars “I did my best.” John

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  2. Margiran
    Jun 20, 2022 @ 10:20:12

    Wow! A comprehensive answer John to Jane’s ‘cheating’ multi-question(s)!! 😀

    Just thinking of one:
    ‘When will people be able to retire when 30% or more of the population is over 65?’
    Will they ever be able to retire, I’m wondering?
    More input generally is required on retraining and continuing employment especially for those jobs requiring extra physical effort which may be challenging the older we get.
    Many people retire due only to the physical demands of the job and there being few alternatives/vacancies for continuation.
    Perhaps we need to start thinking more seriously about this 20 years pre-retirement? Difficult!
    It seems important when those enjoying their careers having gained years of experience would otherwise have continued.

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Jun 20, 2022 @ 12:14:27

      Agree Margaret. Schools do not prepare people for retirement and it is often treated as unimodal when the demographics of retirement success a great deal of diversity in terms of who can retire and when.

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  3. Mark Edward Jabbour
    Jun 21, 2022 @ 18:41:31

    W/r/t the original question about aging populations? My 2 cents: Nothing but trouble.
    Consider: At some point (age, or?) a person becomes non-productive to the health, well-being, and survival of a population (aka as a tribe/community/nation). Other than they, the old (or afflicted), are a means of extracting a living, i.e. money and/or a narcissistic feel good feeling. Such is the nursing care/retirement community/, and medical Fields/industries. Maybe 30% of our economy? In other words, the care of the old is a commodity. Because they, the old, have accumulated wealth and assets. Aka money and property/land etc. deemed of value.
    If you’ve no accumulation of money or property? what worth do you have? Some, in the form of a resource to be exploited. Via guilt, obligation etc. from politicians, activists, and feel good organizations.
    At some point old people become a burden. But, if they have been successful and accumulated wealth? Then what? They are “worth” caring for?

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Jun 22, 2022 @ 07:57:57

      Hi Mark, you raise some interesting points here. Being 76, I might object to being put out to pasture or being used for Soylent Green. Do you remember what Soylent Green was.? On the other hand, I think too many of our politicians are too old as well as too many of our judges in this country. We need to have more young people in positions of authority and decision making. I did not move into a gated community when we retired as I did not want to be surrounded by old people. There is probably some ideal shape to the “age curve” with a balance between young and old. As the Greeks said “all things in moderation.”

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