Old People: a Burden to Society

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For much of the last half century, public discussion of population issues has focused on the proposition that the world faced a population explosion. Many predicted dire consequences as population growth rapidly used up supplies of exhaustible resources such as metals and petroleum. The standard of living would decline as certain essential resources became ever more scarce and costly. This pessimistic view was not new. In 1798, Thomas Malthus, in his famous Essay on the Principle of Population, argued, "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second." Thus, in Malthus' view, population growth will inevitably outstrip the earth's capacity to produce food, resulting in widespread famine, disease and poverty. Modern concern over population growth shares with Malthus the view that population pressures will have dire consequences. However, the Malthus view that these consequences are inevitable -the view that earned economics the label "dismal science"-is not shared by informed observers today. For some, advocacy of rigorous methods of population control has replaced resigned pessimism. For others, a worldwide decline in the birth rate seems to be solving the problem without further government action. If you ask people whether we must continue to be concerned about a population explosion, it is likely that many would respond that the problem will become extremely important in coming years. Yet, experts who study these issues say that the odds that population growth will cause real difficulty in the foreseeable future have receded. We do, however, face with certainty another population problem that will be at hand very soon-a rapidly aging population. This article focuses on one implication of this problem-namely, the consequences of an aging population for government pension systems, such as the U.S. Social Security system, that rely on taxes paid by current workers to fund payments to retirees. The strain on such systems will grow as the number of persons receiving benefits increases relative to those in the labor force and paying taxes. Population Projections

When Malthus wrote his treatise in 1798, the world's population totaled some 900 million persons. Today, world population is roughly 6.4 billion persons, and about 100 million persons are added to the total every year.Figure 1 plots estimates of total world population from 1750 to 2000, including projections of world population to 2050 made by the United Nations.1 For centuries, the world's population grew slowly, as high rates of mortality largely offset high birth rates. Wars, famines and epidemic diseases caused many people to die young; consequently, average life expectancy was low. In Europe, conditions began to improve by the 17th and 18th centuries, with increased food supplies and improvements in personal hygiene and public sanitation. People began to live longer while birth rates remained high; therefore, Europe's population began to increase rapidly. By the end of the 19th century, many other parts of the world had begun to experience increases in life span, and population growth increased throughout the world in the 20th century. World population more than doubled between 1950 and 2000 and has nearly quadrupled since 1900. Currently, world population is growing at a rate of 1.35 percent per year. Dire Malthusian predictions have not come true, however. Although we do witness famine, disease and poverty, as Malthus predicted, these events are usually isolated and reflect temporary problems, often created by civil war. Across the world, food is generally more abundant and less expensive, measured in terms of the amount of labor that must be expended to obtain a given level of...
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