Our attitude towards immigration and trade could cost us our retirement.
In a great column on American exceptionalism, Fareed Zakaria explains that Americans rank dead last among countries surveyed on their belief that trade between countries is a good thing. Americans acceptance of immigration has also precipitously dropped in recent years. This new anxiety comes at a bad time.
This month, the first baby boomer began to collect social security payments. She's merely the first of a very large parade. During the next twenty years, 46 million college-educated baby boomers will retire. There will not be enough American-born workers to replace them. By 2015, the United States and Europe will face shortages in workers. In 1950, the ratio of working age to elderly was 7 to 1; by 2030, it is projected to be 3 to 1.* No matter how we structure retirement, it ultimately rests on this: the people who are working have to make enough to pay for their own lives and the lives of those who aren't.
There are four things that will either make this coming demographic shift a non-issue or make it a huge issue.
One is productivity gains. If a person in 2030 is 3X as productive as a person in 1950, he can more easily take on the task of funding more retired people. To the extent that these productivity gains come from capital investments, returns to capital can help to fund retirements.
Two is the total ratio of non-working to working people. It is true that there will be more retired people for every working person in 2030, but at the same time there will be fewer school-age children for every working person. Non-working = in school + retired. As the retired number goes up, the in school number will go down. Factoring in school-aged children makes the ratio of working to non-working look less worrisome. Plus, real advances in medical and psychological treatments could make it possible for a higher percentage of the working age population to be productive.
Three is the number of immigrants. Just as we're projecting a drop in working age population, Africa, Asia, and South America is projecting an increase. Inviting immigrants to maintain our population of window washers and brain surgeons will help them and help us.
Fourth is trade and investment across borders. If my retirement fund pays me from returns to capital invested in a foreign company, I've helped to create jobs for foreigners and they've helped to fund my retirement.
The truth is, we need a combination of these four factors in order to smoothly sail past this jarring and unprecedented shift in demographics. No one factor listed above would be enough, on its own, to ensure retirement funding.
I've written before about how oddly inflated is the concern about immigration in this country. The truth is, we have only two choices: take a step back in prosperity or step further into this age of globalization. Insulating ourselves from the outside world is not an appealing option. The politicians who feed Americans' fear of immigrants or trade are doing worse than pandering to phobias - they're setting us up for failure.
The facts from the * paragraph are taken from James Canton's The Top Trends That Will Reshape The World in the Next 20 Years.