Ovid's Stone

As global populations gradually change, so do our political and economic structures. It happens slowly, but it happens surely. As Ovid observed, ‘dripping water hollows out stone’.

Documenting this phenomenon, Pew Research has gathered 10 startling charts showing how the US population is changing. The list sees America becoming radically more diverse. Asia is replacing Latin America as the biggest source of immigrants, while millennial Hispanics are becoming the fastest growing electoral group in the country. The world’s most powerful nation could be a very different beast in the decades to come.

Affairs of the heart are also changing with the times. Millennials are driving a fall in the US divorce rate, which shrunk by around a fifth between 2008 to 2016, according to analysis by Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen. The annual proportion of married American women getting a divorce fell from 21 in 10,000 to 17, the study revealed.

Millennials are likely to marry only when they feel financially comfortable. They’re also a lot more picky about who they choose as a life partner, according to the Gottman Institute, which researches relationships.

What’s bad for divorce lawyers is, it appears, good for markets. A younger population usually leads to higher growth and better capital market returns. Rob Arnott, the man who pioneered the concept of smart beta, confirms these linkages. He finds that a growing cohort of young adults is very positive for GDP growth, more older workers is slightly negative, and an increasing pool of young children and senior citizens is very bad for economic prosperity.

The findings are backed by a US Federal Reserve paper, which found that demographic changes have accounted for a 12.5-percentage-point decline in the natural rate of real interest and real gross domestic product growth since 1980. And a study by the International Monetary Fund found that the growing number of workers in Europe aged 55 and older has lowered productivity growth by about 0.1 percentage points each year over the past two decades.

Stocks perform best when the 35-59 group is particularly large, according to Arnott, and bonds perform best when the 50-69 group is growing fast. Strikingly, for every 1 per cent increase in the concentration of adolescents aged 10-14, annual stock market returns fall by 0.7 per cent. Meanwhile, a typically deep and comprehensive analysis from Goldman Sachs found that demographics will have a generally negative effect on real bond yields in the decades to come.

So, there you have it ­— demographics will surely make a difference to your portfolio. Just very slowly.

Retirement, pensions and a general lack of death

Death and taxes used to be certainties. But today’s fast-moving world is challenging even these stalwarts. Death can be delayed.

This issue is debated in the 2016 book The 100-Year Life, by two London Business School academics, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. They noted that, while longevity will create more infirm citizens, many others will stay healthy much longer — and will be happy to work well into their 70s or 80s. Gratton and Scott advanced the idea of a multistage life, with repeated changes of direction and attention, warning recreation will have to become ‘re-creation’.

But even a 100-year life span will not be enough for some people. Yuval Noah Harari, professor at Hebrew University and author of best-selling anthropology primer Sapiens, investigates the human quest to end death in the follow-up book Homo Deus. Projecting forward from current biotech trends, he envisages a future where the rich and powerful finally defeat the Grim Reaper and obtain eternal youth. He remarks that some scientists consider death to be a technical problem to which a technical solution does exist.

While this all sounds like fun for a few individuals, at a state level, longer lives are causing problems. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has come unstuck trying to solve his country’s pension imbalances. His 87 per cent approval rating fell to 67 per cent earlier this year after he revealed plans to raise the age at which Russians qualify for pension benefits. The age goes up eight years to 63 for women, and five years for men to 65.

China faces similar challenges but on a much larger scale. KPMG provides an interesting overview of China’s preparedness, and lack thereof, for the coming grey wave of retirees in its China Pensions Outlook. China has had a full state pension system in place for less than two decades, which is not a long time for a country expected to have 300 million people aged over 60 by 2025. Corporate pensions and private pots are only just getting off the ground. This creates formidable challenges, but opportunities too - not least for those in the financial services industry who specialise in death and taxes.

On the other hand…

Two notable academic papers argue that an older world might not be as bad as people fear.

Both Russia and China may be cheered by a study from the US National Bureau of Economic Research that found there is no negative effect of the ageing population on economic growth. The NBER argues that as the population ages, the shrinking workforce will increase demand for workers, pushing up wages. Higher wages will incentivise firms to invest in technology, making labour more productive and offsetting any reduction in economic growth.

Meanwhile, a 2017 paper by Charles Goodhart, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, and Manoj Pradhan -both of whom are also former Morgan Stanley economists - argued that the rising number of retirees would ’reverse three multi-decade trends’ by reducing inequality, pushing up interest rates and raising equilibrium growth rates.

They find that old generations are inflationary for an economy, and that the working age population is deflationary. With the working age population shrinking, inflation could return. The share of profits that will go to labour, rather than capital, must increase as a result. The rising wages will help to reduce levels of inequality that have built up since 1980, according to the theory.

Books on the subject

It’s fun to forecast far into the future. But accuracy varies.

A good reminder of this is the classic Essay on the Theory of Population (1798) by Thomas Malthus. Malthus, perhaps rather logically, theorised that the world would suffer widespread famine as populations overtook agricultural capacity. Of course, what he did not factor into his forecasts was that improvements in technology and farming would more than keep pace with the growing population, leading to a decline in global hunger. On the plus side, the work paved the way for the first modern census in the UK in 1801.

A big picture view is provided by former UBS chief economist George Magnus in his book The Age of Aging, which is a study of the economic and social impact of elderly populations and what governments and international bodies should be doing to manage them.

The philosophical question of how best to spend the twilight years of life is at least as important as these economic ones and has preoccupied great minds for millennia. Back in 44BC, Cicero held forth on the pleasures of life’s last act in On Old Age (translated as How to Grow Old).

Something lighter - film and fiction

Fables of the fountain of youth are as old as the hills. As is the film Cocoon (1985) which features some elderly Florida retirees who discover ancient alien eggs, preserved by a mysterious rejuvenating force. It works on humans, too, they discover, with what in 1985 passed for hilarious effect. If aliens exist, our demographic problems may be solved.

The freedoms of old age, and what to do with them, are the subject of About Schmidt (2002). At 66, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) finds himself at a crossroads. He’s a recently retired insurance salesman with few hobbies and no travel plans. But when his wife suddenly dies, he takes to the road, on a mission to postpone his estranged daughter’s wedding to a man he despises.

The Children of Men by PD James (1992), most recently interpreted as the film Children of Men (2006), directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is set in a future dystopia where a crash in fertility results in a childless and ageing global population. Much social unrest, and government sponsored suicide, ensues.

Highly recommended list

Benjamin Moshinsky

Benjamin Moshinsky

Editor at Large