The Baby Boom Wasn’t That Big, WSJ

Boomers will be flooding the senior centers over the next few years and decades and that wave will be a serious force in economics and investing for he next couple of decades.

So it’s good to see this Wall Street Journal Q&A with a researcher and fund manager on how that might affect returns on investment.

But the thesis is oversold. This stat jumps out immediately (emphasis mine):

Mr. Arnott: This very year, for the first time in U.S. history, the population of senior citizens rises faster than the working-age population. Less than 10 years ago, when the baby boomers’ kids were coming into the labor force and the very skimpy roster of Depression babies was retiring, we had 10 new additions to the working-age cadre for each one new senior citizen.

It goes to 10-to-1 in the opposite direction in 10 years. There will be 10 new senior citizens for each new working-age citizen. If that’s not a political, economic and capital-markets game changer, I don’t know what is…

Now with the interconnected influence of demography, debt and deficits, we’re likely to see considerably slower economic growth than in past years. So I view stocks as having a forward-looking return of 5%, give or take, over the next 10 to 20 years.

If bonds are priced to give us, let’s say, 2% to 4%, that means your balanced portfolio is likely to deliver 4%. Net of inflation and net of taxes, that’s awfully close to zero real after-tax return.

Dang, you say. The new-worker-to-new-retiree ratio was 10-to-1 a decade ago, and a decade from now it’s going to be flipped on its head? We’re screwed.

Thankfully, it’s just not true, not by a longshot.

There’s something of a misimpression that Baby Boomers were this giant generation that was never replicated. The Baby Boom really was the result of a big increase in birth rates and there were many more in that generation than in the generation that immediately preceded them and that followed them.

But lots of Boomers had kids and those kids had the six year olds that will replace Boomers in the workforce. The Boomers (1946-1964 numbered 77 million, while the Millennials (1982-2000) totaled 81 million. And those folks are having kids, too, obviously. Two at once if you’re my wife (I’m an Xer).

A glance at 2010 Census data would have showed the Journal how wrong those figures are. If we’re going to figure out about how many people will become working age in 2022 and how many will retire, we need to look at how many people were six years old in 2010 and how many were 53 years old (assuming that people enter the workforce at 18 and become senior citizens at 65)

According to Census data, there were 4.2 million people aged 6 in the United States in December 2010 while there were 4.4 million people aged 53.

But, and I’m sorry to tell you this Boomers, but way more of you will be dying off in the next few years. Roughly thirty times more, according to the actuaries. Twelve percent of the above-mentioned 53 year olds won’t make it to see 2022, compared to just 0.4 percent of the six year olds.

So there will actually be a few hundred thousand more new working-age people in the U.S. in 2022 than there will be new senior citizens. That’s roughly a one-to-one ratio, not one-to-ten.

Which is why it’s important to fact-check quotes interviews like these—especially the ones that make you say “wow.”

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,