In Box

Geriatric World

Prepare for the invasion of the centenarians.  

Death and taxes may be guaranteed, but what happens to an economy when the hereafter becomes a much more distant prospect? Western countries are about to find out. More than half the babies born since 2000 in France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Canada, Japan, and the United States will live past 100, according to a recent study in The Lancet, the British medical journal, charting the astronomical increase in life expectancy experienced since 1840 in developed countries. By midcentury there will be nearly 6 million people over 100 in the world, compared with just 340,000 today, according to the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

The social and economic consequences of a centenarian world are likely to be monumental. One challenge, of course, will be medical costs. Just because people are living longer doesn't mean they're staying healthy as they age, and the price tag just for basic elderly care will be massive. But the more profound change might be in how societies think about work and careers. "The 20th century was a century of redistribution of income," the authors write. "The 21st century could be a century of redistribution of work."

Raising the retirement age will be a necessary first step, the researchers suggest. This carries some risks, not least of which is what the report's lead author, Kaare Christensen of the Danish Aging Research Center, calls the "Prince Charles problem." Just as Charles has spent a lifetime as king-in-waiting behind his now-octogenarian mother, Christensen foresees a bottleneck of older workers preventing younger employees from advancing until their own golden years. One solution is to change the way careers are structured over time, by creating part-time, semiretired positions for seniors and perhaps even allowing workers to put in fewer hours during the years when they're raising children. "Most people have an enormous amount of work between age 20 and 40," Christensen says. "Why not postpone it until you're older and the kids don't want to see you anyway?"

The full implications of a developed world filled with 100-year-olds are unfathomable. Then again, we have our own long lifetimes to figure it out.

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In Box

Stormy Forecast

How climate change affects trade.

For years, scientists have forecast that global warming will have a disproportionate impact on the world's poorest countries. Flooding will worsen in Bangladesh; the deserts in East Africa will expand; bigger, stronger cyclones will hit Indonesia. Now, two economists have divined yet another negative outcome of a hotter world for low-income countries: less trade.

Benjamin Jones of Northwestern and Benjamin Olken of MIT analyzed global import-export data as well as temperature and precipitation readings. They found that for poor countries, in a given year, every 1-degree Celsius increase in average nationwide temperature cut the growth rate of exports 2 to 5.7 percentage points. For rich countries, hotter or cooler temperatures had no measurable effect.

Poor countries are especially at risk because they depend so heavily on farming and light manufacturing -- think cornfields and T-shirt factories. Temperature rises wipe out crops and hurt performance among factory workers. And because such countries tend to have little domestic trade and derive most of their income from exports, small changes can add up fast. If global warming cuts the export growth rate only half a percentage point per year, after 20 years it adds up to 10 points, Jones explains -- a difference that could be even more disastrous for poor countries than the punishing weather that will accompany it.

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