Thanks to the baby bust, America is getting older

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Thanks to the baby bust, America is getting older

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When I was born in 1978, the median American was 30 years old. These days, the median American is 38.9, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday. That’s a rapid aging of the American population.

Some portion of that increase is good news: Older people are living longer than they were 40 years ago. In 1980, the average American life expectancy at birth was less than 74 years, and now it’s more than 79 years.

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But mostly, the aging of our country is about our 15-year-long baby bust.

“It’s simple arithmetic,” demographer Andrew A. Beveridge told the New York Times. “Fewer kids are being born.”

This is true. Almost every year since 2007, fewer and fewer children have been born in the United States, down from 4.3 million in 2007 to 3.7 million in 2022. The birthrate has fallen from about 2.1 babies per woman to less than 1.7.

Fifteen years of decreasing births means a lot fewer young people. We have fewer children in America in the 2020 census than in the 2010 census.

In some places, the graying is more severe. Maine’s median age is 44.8, followed by New Hampshire at 43.3. The youngest states are the very fecund Utah (31.9), followed by the transient, young adult-heavy Washington, D.C., at 34.8.

Economically, the most important fact of our aging population is the shifting old age-dependency ratio. The working age population has flatlined, and the retirement age population is growing. This means fewer people doing productive work and more people who are consumers but not producers.

As economist Alan Cole puts it, “neither private saving nor government pension schemes work unless there are enough workers to meet the needs of older Americans. No amount of financial wizardry will conjure them into existence.”

If you’ve liked the inflation of the past couple of years, you’ll love the next 30 years of a baby bust economy with a shrinking number of producers and a high number of consumers.

Culturally, there are more important problems from an aging population. An older society, and a society with fewer children, is sadder. This sadness fuels less marriage and less family formation.

Growing old as an individual is painful but inevitable, and the sadness is mixed with joy. Growing old as a society is a disaster.

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