Scott Burns: The pandemic economy should change our thinking about aging

You might have noticed: Things change.

That’s why I re-read Joseph Coughlin’s “The Longevity Economy” as part of my preparation for 2022. Having just had my 81st birthday, it was part of my due diligence for a long and positive future.

Join me.

The book is a more important read today than when it was published five years ago.

Coughlin is the founder and prime mover at the MIT Age Lab, one of the many research groups that make MIT among the most exciting and vital institutions in the country. This is a book that should be required reading for corporate executives, elected officials and policymakers.

Regular people should read it, too. It’s a tool for recasting our ideas about old age and retirement.

This book attacks, and destroys, the biggest bad idea about aging. In its place, the book builds an in-depth case for us to discover and develop the opportunities presented by the demographic change we’re going to experience during the next 30 years.

If we have the idea that old age is all bad, the future coming toward us can only be dismal. Why?

We’re an aging nation.

That’s a truth. Inescapable.

So let’s deal with the Biggest Bad Idea. “Old age,” Coughlin says, “is made up.”

Yes, you read that right. It doesn’t exist.

Coughlin calls it a social construct, an artificial creation. While we will continue to age and die, what older people can do and how they live is massively misrepresented by the prevailing idea of old age.

Worse, our burdensome concept of old age is more than a century old. It was formed during a time when life was dramatically shorter. Since then, we’ve enjoyed what Nobel laureate Angus Deaton has called “the great escape” — our liberation from an early death that has increased life expectancy. It allows newborns to know their grandparents and sometimes even their great-grandparents.

In spite of that change, it is broadly accepted that when you are old, you also are needy, infirm and greedy. It happens when you reach age 65, or earlier. As part of that conventional wisdom in business, the concept of old age has limited corporate imagination to adult diapers, faster wheelchairs, hearing aids and replacement body parts.

In fact, the elderly are the fastest-growing population group in the United States (not to mention most of the planet). And while many older people lack sufficient assets and income, the resources of the elderly dwarf the spending money of the young and of many people in mid-career.

One important aspect of that future, Coughlin writes, is that it is more about women than about men. Although men now live longer than they did a century ago, we die earlier, and women outlive men. As a consequence, he tells us that women are the future. Not recognizing that, he writes, is why high-tech companies, which are largely populated by young men, are consistently clueless about product development.

So why is this book more important today than it was in 2017?

Simple: COVID-19.

The employment and labor force issues that he wrote about then — a shortage of workers in many specific areas — have hit our economy harder during the pandemic. Many older people decided it was a good time to retire. Others didn’t have a choice. While the labor force participation rate for those 55 and older rose during the 2007-09 financial crisis, increasing from 39% to 39.7%, it fell dramatically as the virus hit, falling from 40.2% at the end of 2019 to 38.5% in October.

COVID-19 made things worse, causing what the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis called “The COVID Retirement Boom,” which happened in an economy that now has more than 10 million unfilled jobs.

Older workers could rejoin the labor force, fill some of those unfilled jobs and maybe, just maybe, curb inflation a bit. Having some older folks work longer also might increase productivity a bit.

That’s inconceivable if you think, as many corporations act, that anyone older than 50 is “deadwood.” But Coughlin cites a 2016 National Bureau of Economic Research study that found our economy would have grown faster if it hadn’t lost older workers and their experience.

In other words, losing older, experienced workers is a good way to lose productivity, not gain it.

The same losses might increase the difficulty of rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure. In a recent Forbes post, Coughlin observed that millennials and Generation Z have avoided the skilled trades.


We have an aging workforce for boots-on-the-ground tasks of building. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, here are the percentage of workers older than 40 in key trades:

• 65% of heavy equipment operators.

• 56% of electricians.

• 52% of electricity line workers.

• 52% of welders.

• 52% of pipefitters/plumbers.

• 51% of civil engineers.

• 49% of structural and ironworkers.

We have a great future to build, but you have to wonder how we’re going to git ‘er done.

Scott Burns writes for The Dallas Morning News.