The “Boomerangst” Generation — Take II
What toll will an aging population take on the family structure?
- Changes in social attitudes and public policy will become necessary, especially in the work, education, health and care sectors. This will be a major task.
- The whole character of cities and neighborhoods is likely to change, reflecting both youth depopulation and growing numbers of older people.
- Children are being born into families that are more "long" than "wide." In other words, they may have no siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles.
- Financial and lifestyle aspirations may have to be revised in line with changing economic circumstances.
- Some things will favor the boomerangst generation — there will be markedly less competition for university places, jobs and financial resources.
The boomerangst generation faces a quartet of life-changing developments. First, it might find that parental wealth slips away into the financing of longevity and old-age care instead of into an inheritance pot.
Second, the boomerangst generation will almost certainly become directly involved in wider generational policy issues. These include the financing of age-related spending for parents and grandparents, a less-generous pension and tax environment, bigger pressures for self-provision in retirement and possibly higher inflation and less-buoyant property markets.
The face of depopulation
The whole character, look and feel of cities and neighborhoods, towns and rural villages is likely to change, reflecting both youth depopulation and growing numbers of older people and the shifts in social and family structures towards smaller units. In the past, there seemed to be a certain order to the way we grew up and to the way families evolved.
Typically, children grew up in families with at least one sibling and had a network of relatives, including two sets of grandparents as well as aunts, uncles and cousins.
They would go to university and or go to work and eventually have their own families and, with luck, inherit worldly goods and property from their parents when the latter died.
In the decades following the Second World War especially, this sequential order became a bedrock of aspiration and well-being.
It was reinforced and supported by a generally benign economic and social backdrop, including sustained economic growth, the acceptability of wider income redistribution by government, continuous career employment in settled industries and greater access to high-quality secondary and university education.
Gradually this is all changing. In the first place, children are being born into families that are more “long” than “wide.” In other words, they may have no siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles but they could expect, as a norm, to have not only parents but also living grandparents and great grandparents. It is quite possible to imagine this but much harder to know what it might mean.
Think about how family structures are changing even today. In the United States in 2006, for example, there were 92 million people who were unmarried or single, equivalent to 42% of all people over the age of 18 years. Of these, 60% had never married, 25% were divorced and 15% were widowed.
At the household level, a quarter of people were living alone and an unmarried person headed nearly half of households. Only a third of households had children aged less than 18 years (compared with half in 1960) and by 2025-30, this proportion may be no more than a quarter.
In a nutshell, childless single people will continue to grow as a group.
What will become of the role of the family in preparing young people for interaction in society if the family is comprised mainly of older relatives? Without siblings and peer-age-group relatives, how will children learn to offer and receive help and comfort as they do in bigger or extended families?
Facebook may be fun and a great way to stay in touch with or make new friends, but it is no substitute for the extended family. Family units without biological peers and comprising three, or possibly even four, generations create different demands from more traditional ones.
These include young and middle-age parents having to bear more responsibility for dependent children as well as their parents and grandparents, while more family members require care and financial support in old age.
Furthermore, if older people work longer, employment possibilities for younger people could be compromised. At the same time, financial opportunities might be limited by lower economic growth generally, reduced retirement benefits, higher taxes and the costs associated with retirement provision. None of this is to say that families will not adapt — but life will be different.
New family structures and relationships will evolve in the process, and for many, financial and lifestyle aspirations may have to be revised in line with changing economic circumstances.
As a result of all this, the boomerangst generation and their children in turn will mature with different types of family structures and support networks in which grandparents and great grandparents may play much more important roles.
An active older life
Some couples may spend the better part of 40 years together after their child or children have left home, but some will divorce and/or remarry, establishing new and sometimes complex household structures and relationships.
Many will have to get used to living alone in older age. Well over half of women aged over 75 do already — largely because they live longer than men and also because older widows have much lower re-marriage rates than older widowers.
And last, the boomerangst generation will have to address how their aging world will adapt to new patterns of globalization and continued high levels of immigration — but in a different and unfamiliar context.
The dominance of the West that they might naturally have assumed to be their cultural inheritance may turn out to be hollow, as younger societies in the developing world grow in stature and size to fill the gaps being created by aging societies elsewhere.
Some things will doubtless favor the boomerangst generation. It will grow up and advance towards prime working age at a time when incomes, consumption and savings will be higher. There will be fewer of them, compared with their parents — so there will be markedly less competition for university places, jobs and financial resources.
Also, because of tightening labor markets, low unemployment rates may become the norm. Housing could become significantly more affordable — if the long-run trend in real house prices weakens after the current housing bust has passed.
Last but not least, it has grown accustomed to the effects of de-industrialization. More to the point, the information economy continues to throw up new opportunities for work and leisure, which it is sure to exploit.
From a “big picture” standpoint, the boomerangst generation will have to find its own solutions and ways of adjusting to population aging. It is likely to involve an expansion of government responsibility and authority for the management of change, specifically with regard to population aging, but doubtless other important issues as well.
Preparation for population aging is, like other matters that concern us today, a priceless public good, the benefits of which are indivisible.
In saying this, I am not arguing that private provision and self-interest cannot come up with solutions. The likelihood, however, is that people may not care for the repercussions, which would almost certainly include wider societal divisions and inequalities.
The age of aging
As more and more people want to live a dignified and satisfying old age, with more of it active or at work, changes in social attitudes and public policy will become necessary, especially in the work, education, health and care sectors. This will be a major task.
The Spanish film director, Luis Bunuel, who lived until he was 83, once quipped that “age is not important unless you’re a cheese.” Those who are sitting back in poolside chairs at a retirement condominium in Miami or Malaga, may understand what he meant.
Collectively though, we are about to find out just how important this point is going to become in societies that are poorly prepared for the Age of Aging.