What Old Age Might Be Like for Today’s 30-Year-Olds

As the country ages, economists and others expect life will be very different for tomorrow’s seniors

Get ready for a new old age.

With the U.S. fertility rate in a decadelong slump and the life expectancy of 65-year-old Americans approaching roughly 85, our aging nation is likely to grow older by midcentury, as the ratio of young to old continues to decline.

The trend is likely to upend how our society is organized, making life very different for today’s 30-year-olds when they reach their 60s compared with life for 60-year-olds now.

If current population trends continue, we could see “a radical and really pronounced graying of society,” says Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute. In many countries, fewer babies are being born today, which means there will be fewer women having children in the coming decades, setting the stage for the global population to shrink, perhaps as soon as midcentury, according to some demographers.

Some predict birth rates in the U.S., which began declining during the 2008 recession, could rise if economic optimism improves or if immigration, which accounted for between a third and half of U.S. population growth during the past decade, increases. Others note that life expectancy has been largely stagnant or dropping in the U.S. and many parts of the developed world for about a decade.

Still, with birth rates in many countries below the population-replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman, the workforce in most developed countries is poised to decline in the coming decades, eroding already strained social programs in which workers’ contributions help support retirees.

To gain insight into what this might mean for the 60-year-olds of tomorrow, we asked a half-dozen economists and experts on aging to make predictions about what life could be like in 2050 in four areas: at work, home, culturally, and with regard to healthcare.

At Work

Charles Goodhart, an economist at the London School of Economics, argues in his 2020 book, “The Great Demographic Reversal,” that the slowing growth of the global workforce will cause worldwide economic growth to slow over the next three decades. (Only parts of sub-Saharan Africa, India and some other emerging economies are likely to see significant population gains, Prof. Goodhart and his co-author, Manoj Pradhan, say.)

Because “much of the workforce of 2050 has already been born,” the trajectory is clear, Prof. Goodhart says.

As the labor-force growth slows, he predicts, workers will wield more bargaining power, causing wages to rise. That will keep inflation high, while inequality within countries will fall.

People in their 40s and 50s will save less for retirement as more of them delay child rearing and wind up continuing to support families during their highest-earning years. The official retirement age for programs including Social Security will rise, perhaps to 70 or even above, he says.

Mike Hodin, chief executive of the Global Coalition on Aging, composed of companies focused on the opportunities longevity and aging are creating, believes that employers will seek to attract and retain workers in their 60s and 70s to shore up smaller workforces. And more companies will design products and services for a burgeoning number of older consumers, he says.

Given their greater numbers and disposable wealth, older consumers will replace their younger counterparts as the target of many marketing campaigns, Mr. Hodin predicts. Though classic marketing strategies seek to appeal to younger consumers to secure their loyalty for decades, social media is eroding brand loyalty among younger generations while longevity is making 50-year-olds more attractive targets.

“If I can capture a 50-year-old today, I can potentially keep her for another 30 or 40 years,” says Mr. Hodin.

More Hodin predictions: Startups by older entrepreneurs will attract more financing from venture capitalists. And eldercare will become the largest business sector in the U.S. More employers will offer benefits for eldercare.

Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, thinks we will move away from a model of the lifespan in which education occurs primarily in youth, paid work dominates the middle years and leisure is consigned to retirement.

“People will work many more years but more flexibly,” Prof. Carstensen says. Three- or four-day workweeks and career breaks will become the norm. To keep older workers, she says, companies will allow them to reduce their hours gradually.

The Culture

Bill Thomas, a physician and entrepreneur whose nonprofit Green House Project promotes senior living in small homelike settings, predicts that the antiaging industry will kick into high gear to peddle longevity as “the ultimate luxury good” to the wealthy. The antiaging gurus of 2050 will “demand truly exorbitant compensation” for plastic surgery and healthcare services that are largely ineffective at extending life, he says.

Dr. Thomas also anticipates the rise of “a new class of old people” who embrace aging and focus on adding “life to their years,” some by “supporting younger people in their journey of discovery” as formal or informal mentors and in other roles that aim to give back to society.

Ashton Applewhite, an author and anti-ageism activist, predicts that as the anti-ageism movement gains momentum, “derogatory terms for older people will become as unacceptable as sexist comments and racist slurs,” and that Congress will strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act and make it easier to prove age discrimination in the workplace.

Ms. Applewhite expects new roles and rituals for older people to emerge akin to Japan’s Kanreki, a party to celebrate turning 60.

The Global Coalition on Aging’s Mr. Hodin says he expects colleges to become more age-integrated as “a tsunami of older Americans” goes back to school to explore personal and professional interests.

Prof. Carstensen predicts that Social Security retirement benefits will be replaced by benefits that workers can access throughout their lives to fund career breaks, education or disability.

At Home

Mr. Hodin further expects aging to become “a major driver” of the architectural design of cities, homes and offices. Communities will add affordable multigenerational housing near stores and services and event venues. Schools and nonprofit organizations will actively recruit retirees and semi-retirees as volunteers. “Every community will compete to be seen as age-friendly,” Mr. Hodin says.

Michael Hurd, an economist at Rand Corp., predicts that as the population shrinks, dying towns and empty buildings and homes will become more prevalent.

In addition, he says, with coming generations smaller than the last, many people “will have no relatives”—no children, cousins, nieces or nephews—to help provide long-term care and assist with decision-making.

“It’s an unprecedented situation in human history,” Mr. Hurd says. “We have relied on extended family to fill a number of needs” for older persons. Who will older people without relatives turn to? For example, who will give them advice on how to handle their finances? “Society will have to develop institutions to handle those things,” says Mr. Hurd.

Dr. Thomas foresees age-integrated housing, in apartment complexes and accessory units to houses, becoming the norm, fostering generational interdependence.


Mr. Hurd says that if breakthroughs on disease prevention and treatment occur, people will live longer and healthier lives. As a result, many will delay marriage, child rearing and retirement. But if longevity gains come without health improvements, he warns, people will spend “more time needing care,” adding to the strain on the shrinking pool of paid and unpaid caregivers.

Dr. Thomas predicts that health and end-of-life care will shift from hospitals to homes. Such a system will reduce medical costs and be “vastly more effective at cultivating the well-being of millions of old people.”

Mr. Hodin, for his part, thinks that the growing use of eldercare will help shift the U.S. healthcare system away from costly emergency care toward preventive care, since eldercare professionals often detect the onset of diseases such as osteoporosis and vision loss at early stages and help manage treatments. Venture capitalists will invest in the eldercare industry, he says, using technology to boost efficiency and reduce costs.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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