After the end of the second world war births surged across the rich world. Britain, Germany and Japan all enjoyed a baby boom, although it peaked in different years. America’s was most pronounced. By 1964 individuals born after the war accounted for 41% of the total population, forming a generation large enough to exert its own political and economic gravity. (via The next crisis: Sponging boomers | The Economist)
- These boomers have lived a charmed life, easily topping previous generations in income earned at every age. The sheer heft of the generation created a demographic dividend: a rise in labour supply, reinforced by a surge in the number of working women. Social change favoured it too. Households became smaller, populated with more earners and fewer children. And boomers enjoyed the distinction of being among the best-educated of American generations at a time when the return on education was soaring.
- Young workers also cannot expect decades of rising asset prices like those that enriched the boomers. Zheng Liu and Mark Spiegel, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, found in 2011 that movements in the price-earnings ratio of equities closely track changes in the ratio of middle-aged to old workers, meaning that the p/e ratio is likely to fall. Thanks largely to the rapid recovery in stockmarkets, those aged between 53 and 58 saw a net decline in wealth of just 2.8% between 2006 and 2010.
- Boomers’ sponging may well outstrip that of younger generations as well. A study by the International Monetary Fund in 2011 compared the tax bills of a cohort’s members over their lifetime with the value of the benefits that they are forecast to receive. The boomers are leaving a huge bill. Those aged 65 in 2010 may receive $333 billion more in benefits than they pay in taxes (see chart), an obligation 17 times larger than that likely to be left by those aged 25.
- Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, two Harvard economists, estimate that public debt above 90% of GDP can reduce average growth rates by more than 1%. Meanwhile, the boomer era has seen falling levels of public investment in America. Annual spending on infrastructure as a share of GDP dropped from more than 3% in the early 1960s to roughly 1% in 2007.
- Austerity is another option, but the consolidation needed would be large. The IMF estimates that fixing America’s fiscal imbalance would require a 35% cut in all transfer payments and a 35% rise in all taxes—too big a pill for a creaky political system to swallow. Fiscal imbalances rise with the share of population over 65 and with partisan gridlock, according to other research by Mr Eschker. This is troubling news for America, where the over-65 share of the voting-age population will rise from 17% now to 26% in 2030.
- That leaves a third possibility: inflation. Post-war inflation helped shrink America’s debt as a share of GDP by 35 percentage points (see article). More inflation might prove salutary for other reasons as well. Mr Rogoff has suggested that a few years of 5% price rises could have helped households reduce their debts faster. Other economists, including two members of the Federal Reserve’s policymaking committee, now argue that with interest rates near zero, the Fed should tolerate a higher rate of inflation to speed up recovery.
- The generational divide makes this plan a hard sell. Younger workers are typically debtors, who benefit from inflation reducing real interest rates. Older cohorts with large savings dislike it for the same reason. A recent paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis suggests that as a country ages, its tolerance for inflation falls.
Things are “looking up”: