The ageing of the USA, Part One

Back to the future – a new way of seeing forward

Part One of a three-part paper previously published by Professor Sherry Jarrell

Market research on the ageing of the U.S. baby boomer generation has focused on the spending habits of these older consumers. A new approach enables marketing researchers to observe the future now: Examine income and spending patterns from metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with age demographics similar to those projected for the U.S. economy in 2020 and 2025. With knowledge of these trends, they can begin preparing to meet the demands for particular products and services.

“Find a comfortable couch, lie back, and close your eyes. … Let your mind wander toward the future. Move, slowly, to the year 2030. Now open your eyes. What do you see? You see a country whose collective population is older than that in Florida today. You see a country where walkers outnumber strollers.” Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns in The Coming Generational Storm (The MIT Press, 2004).

Projected Age Distribution, U.S. Bureau of Census data

There has been much speculation regarding the effects of the aging population on the U.S. economy. By the year 2025, more than 18% of the U.S. population is projected to be age 65 or older, greater than the percentage in Florida today. This has led some to describe the future of the United States as “a nation of Floridas.” Furthermore, the aging of the United States is not expected to pass with the demographic bulge produced by baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). The U.S. population also is aging because of increased life expectancy and decreased numbers of offspring. As a result, current research projects that the U.S. age profile soon will transform from the current pyramid shape, with older groups at the top, to more of a barrel shape, with roughly 40% of the population divided fairly evenly between the youngest (under age 15) and oldest (over age 65) groups. This new profile will persist for decades.

Although much has been said about aging baby boomers leading to potential crises in Social Security and Medicare, we are more interested in the economic prospects of their retirement as they relate to consumer spending: in particular, whether they have saved enough to maintain their standards of living in retirement. In this regard, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reviewed studies from the past decade on the retirement prospects of aging Americans, and found evidence that varied with the standard used to define “enough.” Some studies defined it as the level that maintained the retiree’s working-age standard of living, whereas others defined it as levels that made the retiree as well off as his or her parents at the same age.

The picture that emerges from the CBO study is that baby boomers, relative to their parents at the same age, have higher real incomes, are preparing for retirement at the same pace, and have accumulated more private wealth. Furthermore, the savings behavior of baby boomers and other future retirees is dependent on their views of the health and stability of government benefit programs. If they believe that they will receive all of the government benefits they have earned, then they will tend to work and save less. If they believe that these programs are in trouble, then they might increase savings and postpone retirement.

What impact will changing age demographics have on future spending patterns? We obtain a more complete picture of future spending by observing aggregate spending patterns in local economies that resemble the future now: those cities where “walkers outnumber strollers” today. This novel research approach is based on actual observed data, rather than on speculation and long-term statistical forecasts, both of which are notorious for inaccuracy.

In the next post, we discuss our sometimes surprising findings on the spending patterns in the U.S. city of the future.

By Sherry Jarrell

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