Time’s running out, oldsters: pass the power to the lighties

Business

Time’s running out, oldsters: pass the power to the lighties

We oldies will depend on young people’s productivity to subsidise our longevity, so we’d better support them

Mark Barnes


We’re all getting older. That was OK when everyone got their allotted three score years and ten, but we’ve long since moved on from that rule. Scientists predict that the first person to live for 200 years has already been born. In those terms, 70 is midlife crisis, not anywhere close to dying.
The pyramid structure that typically depicts the age and sex distribution of the population is gradually morphing into something that looks more like a lollipop, with a big blob of oldies where the sharp apex used to be.
Population growth is slowing, from around 2% 50 years ago to about 1% now, dropping to 0.5% by mid-century. This is mathematically inevitable in a population that has experienced almost vertical growth since the steam engine was invented 321 years ago.
An increasing proportion of the population is in the 65 and older bracket – which will double from roughly 10% now to 20% in 2050. For developed countries (those with better health care and populations that can afford to pay for it) the 65-pluses will approach one third of the population.
This is problematic across almost all dimensions of modern society.
The economic strain is already obvious, but it’ll get much worse. Productive young people, such as they are (we’re not looking good at a 40% youth unemployment rate) have to subsidise the elderly when it comes to healthcare, pensions, or even something as basic as a place to live. Whichever way you cut it, we’re supporting more older people, not to mention the kids that can’t find jobs.
Beyond the economics, though, the real question is who is in charge? Who’s telling who what to do? Who owns the future strategy? Is the wisdom of old age yesterday’s wisdom, an asset or a liability?
It’s probably a liability. Experience should be available, as it is to the young pilot flying the plane under the watchful eye of the wise captain, but the youngster should fly the plane.
Leadership positions are being retained by seemingly entrenched, older incumbents. This is particularly true of politicians. Less so, but still so, in business. In business, however, the common interest in returns on shareholders’ funds means that mistakes aren’t tolerated for long.
The evidence is regular and objective, so if it isn’t working it gets fixed or left behind. You don’t have to run the show to own the returns, and shareholders vote all the time, not only once every five years. Popularity is measured in the price at which you can buy or sell shares every day. The gap between the age of the employees of the firm and the clients they seek to satisfy may widen, but it’s clear who comes first. In politics, it’s not so simple.In the quest to find the balance between experience and exuberance, we will need more of the latter if we are to favour progress over preservation.  In business this has proved to be the right risk-return profile, the outperformance difference, and it’s starting to filter through into the choice of sovereign leaders. The 40-somethings will  do a better job (with a little guidance from us oldies, of course).There is a divide between the social media connectivity of the millennials and the behind-closed-doors, members-only, decision-making structures of their leaders.These kids don’t know what they’re doing, right? Maybe so, but they do have the protest vote and they will end up with the economic vote. We will end up depending on their productivity to support our longevity, so we’d better muck in and support them. We would transfer knowledge and partner into prosperity. The risk is that we stay too long, not that they start too early. We don’t have to abdicate, but we certainly had better start incubating.
Economic votes are going to count more than political votes eventually.The real issue is productivity, the output that will need to come from diminishing inputs. That result will not be achieved without technology, extracting more out of less – less resources per capita, less energy, fewer salaried workers, more brains, more systems, more integration.We’ll need less fear and no favours.• Mark Barnes is CEO of Post Office.

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