To get a glance at the future of American society, look east, towards Japan. Japan is one of the most aged countries in the world. The median age in Japan is 45 years, compared to 37 years in the United States. The combination of a decreased birthrate and an increased life expectancy has left Japan grayer than ever, and struggling to cope. An aging baby boomer population means America needs to start planning for a similar situation.
According to a Washington Post article, in 1965 there were 9.1 Japanese workers per retiree. By 2050, astonishingly, there will be just one worker for each retiree in Japan. This dramatic increase in the older population is straining the government’s budget. There are simply fewer younger people to support more elders, so something has to give.
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Ultimately, Japan faces an urgent decision between cutting benefits or increasing taxes (or some combination thereof), both routes that are sure to produce discontent. Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, has resorted to floating an unpopular proposal to double the national sales tax to help pay for the care and pensions of its aging population. Other tactics to mitigate this dilemma include encouraging larger families (increasing birthrate) and also encouraging older workers to stay in the workforce longer (raising retirement age), but such social planning can only go so far.
America will soon be in the same boat. An age boom much like the one that is sweeping Japan right now will soon be experienced in America as the aging baby boomer population reaches retirement age. Currently 13 percent of the U.S. population is over age 65. The Administration on Aging estimates that by 2050 this figure will grow to 20 percent. In fact, the trends that have led to Japan’s “silver tsunami” are already in place in the U.S. It’s only a relatively high rate of immigration that has kept America young.
An increasing number of elders in U.S. means that we will soon have to make difficult policy decisions. The debate about the balance between social welfare and sensible spending, which is already very fiery, will become even more pressing as the age boom makes itself felt in the U.S. As we discuss the future of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, we will have to determine what we as a society owe to our elders.
Japan and the United States obviously are very different cultures, so it’s not a perfect parallel, but there may be much to learn from observing how our ally across the sea handles a dramatic increase in the older population. While Japan’s age boom has already reached crisis levels, America still has time for proactive planning. What do you think we should do to prepare for the aging baby boomer population? Share your comments below.