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A Big Debate About Baby Boomers

My article last week on the retirement of the baby boom generation generated a lot of discussion — more than 150 comments on the article itself, and plenty more on Twitter, LinkedIn and other platforms.

Many of the comments coalesced around a few common themes. Among them: The potential for technology to offset the impact of the boomers’ retirement by allowing remaining workers to be more productive; the importance of volunteerism and other contributions by retirees that may not be fully captured by economic data; and the prevalence of discrimination by employers against older workers, particularly the unemployed.

Many readers also criticized the article as implying that baby boomers are becoming a burden on society and don’t deserve to enjoy their golden years. To be clear, that wasn’t my intention. The article focused on the impact boomers’ retirement will have on economic growth. But that’s far from the only measure of societal value.

Here are some of the responses I found most interesting. (Some have been lightly edited for length or clarity.) We’ll try to address some of these topics in future stories. Have other thoughts, or related ideas you’d like us to pursue? Leave them in the comments.

“Retired people depend financially on their children? I’d say right now it is mostly the other way around for many, or for most of us.” — Tom Ogren

“A simple and obvious reason for comprehensive immigration law reform. We need more immigration, not less.” — Don Slowik

“This ‘the boomers are hanging onto their jobs and clogging up labor pathways’ hypothesis has been out there for a while. FiveThrityEight should see what the numbers are around that claim, and track it regularly as a long-term project.” — Chas Stewart

“I’d like to see us implement an apprentice system again. The younger learner would pair up with an old pro for an extended period of time, and get paid for it. That way, they would have the time to learn all the ins and outs of a trade or career.” — Nancy L. Nyman

“If we need to work longer, companies need to stop finding reasons to eliminate our positions in order to hire younger less expensive employees. This has happened to a number of my colleagues, myself included. I’m on a limited income, but I still am putting plenty of money back into the economy in housing (everyone has to live somewhere), transportation (I just bought a new car), food, gas, entertainment (which covers movies, eating out with friends, and having friends to dinner), clothing (my career suits are no longer appropriate), and oh, I’m still helping my adult children. Everyone has a different situation and lifestyle, but all my acquaintances and friends are in the same boat I am. I have savings, but who knows if I will outlive it. Oh, and the rebound in the economy … I lost half of everything twice. My limited portfolio is finally approaching what it was in the ’90s.” — Connie Cross

“Simply because older adults are not earning a paycheck, it does not mean they are not contributing to the economy. There are millions of 55-plus people (and many under) working as volunteers for nonprofits and for their communities, filling jobs and contributing labor that would otherwise create personnel and overhead costs for an organization. Every hour of pay a volunteer saves an organization means it can purchase equipment and supplies, deliver direct relief, fund training, etc. How do we account for this huge contribution to our economy?” — Gayle Lynn Falkenthal

“I see people doing volunteer work in service to the community, from cleaning trash out of a creek to keeping the county commissioners honest at a zoning hearing. The balance of these people are retirees. They form a sort of social glue that seems vital to my community. Probably not something economists can measure. A pity. If you could measure it you might feel better about all those deadbeat geezers.” — Richard Fairbanks

“The irony of technology is that it allows a few working people to supply the needs of everyone. This sounds great because it means we don’t have to work so hard, but with our economic system it means half of the workforce doesn’t have a job. Those people then drastically reduce consumption, so there is even less demand, fewer jobs. We have not a scarcity of goods, but a scarcity of jobs, and with our system you have to have a job to partake of the goods. What should be paradise becomes hell for large segment of the population. Now with more people retiring, but still consuming, and all those dollars stashed away in retirement savings accounts being spent out to support people in retirement, we can all get back to work.” — Edward Berry

“More trumped up gloom and doom. We do more with less in this country every year. Many people are losing their jobs to more efficient practices. So in turn it takes less people to produce the same amount. We have record numbers of college graduates who can’t get jobs so this should free jobs up to lower-paid employees. I also feel this generation of retirees are more wealthy and healthier than past [generations] so they will spend more money and add more to the economy than past generations.” — Briean Haag

“First, productivity has been increasing over the past several decades, requiring fewer workers to maintain production levels. Second, retirees continue to consume (at least at some rate) while ceasing competition for jobs. I would think this would tend to reduce unemployment rates in the long run among those still in the workforce. Will it, then, drive up wages and have an inflationary effect?

Currently the job market heavily favors younger workers, those willing and able to work long hours at difficult jobs. If we need more older people to continue working (that is, producing), why would that not result in the creation of jobs more amenable to older workers to take advantage of the new reality?” — John Hardin

“Too many boomers will not have the finances to fund a reasonable retirement, and they will live longer. Too many younger people will not have the same job opportunities that we had, as it stands now. This old versus young debate is silly and non-productive. Better we put our heads together and come up with a workable plan, versus digging a deeper financial grave for the majority.” — Julius Fazekas

“People have been wringing their hands about the ‘boomer’ generation since it arrived on the scene in the mid-40s. It has always had a major impact on the economy and culture of this country. But where was all the lamenting when the ‘boomers’ generation was at its height of productivity and caused one of the greatest eras of prosperity that the country has ever seen? The society will continue to do what it always has done regarding this generation: Deal with it.” — Nathaniel Cecil Banks

“One additional implication of this trend is that the need for employers to backfill vacancies created by retirees is increasing. This is experienced talent walking out the door and companies are scrambling to fill the knowledge gap just to tread water with respect to competitiveness. It is underpinning a need for communities to find ways to better connect companies with top talent. Those communities that figure out how will be in the best position for incremental capital investment from the private sector.” — Ed Burghard

“I think another factor to consider is the number of years people have been spending in retirement. While it varies by industry, on average, people have been spending a third of their lives in retirement. Considering life expectancy is around 75, that is about 25 years. How many people have really saved enough money to support themselves for 25 years without supplementing their income?

Older people are a wealth of information and experience. We have very ageist views that govern our perceptions of older people. We need to reconsider the value they add to our economy. For example, there is projected to be a shortage of nurses. How can we encourage older nurses to stay in the workforce if they are physically able to do so? Can we offer job sharing options so companies and organization do not lose the knowledge and experience older people have?” — Leacey Brown

“For the sake of our children and grandchildren, our lawmakers should be trying to work out solutions to the problems of our ever-growing ‘entitlement’ society. Instead they spend a great deal of their time raising money so that they can be re-elected. Benefits for seniors should be increased, if their household income is low, and decreased if that same income is high. The debate Congress should have is in creating a sliding scale of income, and relate it to a sliding schedule of proper benefits a person is then entitled to. I guess what I’m suggesting is ‘means testing.’” — Roger A. Wandersee

“You take the dependency ratio, portion of population in prime working years, and compare it to the 1960s and 1970s. This ignores a profound secular event: the massive movement of women into the workplace 1970-1995 rising from 43 percent to 60 percent; flattening thereafter.

This meant that not only were the boomers the ‘pig in the python,’ they were even a bigger bulge in the labor market than just their raw numbers would suggest.

Since the higher participation rate seems to be staying at the new, higher level the dependency ratio will not be affected going forward. However, it makes comparisons with periods before around 1995 problematic.” — Larry Headlund

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.