How demographic shifts are causing a labor market crunch : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money America is getting older which is bad news for the state of the labor market. Today, we learn how lower fertility rates and retiring seniors are contributing to shortages in the labor force.

The graying of America

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ADRIAN MA, HOST:

What's up, everyone? Quick note before we get started - in this show, you're going to hear the one and only Stacey Vanek Smith co-hosting. This episode was actually recorded before she went off to work on the Planet Money Summer School series. That is coming out soon, by the way, so be on the lookout for it. OK. Here's the show.

SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC’S “WAKING UP TO THE FIRE”)

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Alana Semuels, hello and welcome to THE INDICATOR.

ALANA SEMUELS: Hello, Stacey.

VANEK SMITH: You are the senior economics correspondent at TIME. And from what I understand, you have come here to THE INDICATOR with a question for me.

SEMUELS: Yes, Stacey. I'm wondering, do you ever think about retiring?

VANEK SMITH: I have not thought about it a ton.

SEMUELS: So I recently talked to someone who is ready to retire right now.

JULIA GRIFFIN: That's correct. I plan to retire this summer - love to travel, and we want to do a lot of it. And we're particularly enamored with Europe at this point because we're just getting started in our sort of world travel ambitions.

SEMUELS: So that was Julia Griffin, and she's a town manager of Hanover, N.H. She's been working in the government for 40 years. But one thing to know about New Hampshire, Stacey, it's one of the oldest states in the country.

VANEK SMITH: Right. It was, like, in the 13 original colonies - live free or die.

SEMUELS: I think you're right, but I mean oldest as in elderly. It's a graying state, and so by 2030, one-third of the population will be over 65 years old.

GRIFFIN: And I think the pandemic in particular took a lot of energy away from us. We all are feeling some fatigue, some burnout.

VANEK SMITH: Fatigue and burnout - yes, I can relate.

SEMUELS: But because New Hampshire is an older state, there are fewer workers who take their places.

VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

SEMUELS: And I'm Alana Semuels. Today on the show, the graying of America. The U.S. is aging while the birthrate is falling, just like countries in Europe and Asia. Right now, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day. And as they retire, their employers are finding themselves short-staffed.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. In fact, some economists are calling this the demographic drought.

SEMUELS: So after the break, we're going to look at this phenomenon through the lens of Hanover, N.H.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SEMUELS: Hanover, N.H. is a small town of 9,000.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. And Hanover has been especially hard hit by the so-called demographic drought.

SEMUELS: And so how many open positions are there in Hanover right now?

GRIFFIN: Right now we have - I'm counting them - seven vacant police officer positions - half the department - four vacant firefighter positions, two vacancies in our public works department, one pending vacancy in our library. We probably have more than two dozen vacancies out of a total of 158 full-time employees. We can't find the bodies. It's not that we have a small applicant pool, we have no applicants.

VANEK SMITH: No applicants - government jobs have a lot in common with some of the other jobs that people just aren't taking or even applying for in the economy right now. These jobs often don't pay that well, at least not compared to the private sector. They often also do not allow remote work, and they sometimes require long hours. Julia Griffin says there aren't a whole lot of young people coming out of college and deciding to work for municipal governments.

SEMUELS: What that means is that this small community is feeling it. Bottom line - they have to make do with less.

GRIFFIN: It could mean that instead of going out to plow when we have an inch or more of snow, we can't go out to plow until we have 3 inches of snow.

VANEK SMITH: But here's the thing - Hanover the city can't just raise wages like a private sector employer could do. There are complicated rules that determine what a government worker makes. So as a kind of solution to tide things over, Hanover is now asking current employees to just add responsibilities onto their current jobs, like having Parks Department staffers working at an after-school program because they just can't find anyone else.

SEMUELS: And that's part of what has made Julia Griffin so weary over these past two years. She's running a town with fewer employees, and those that remain are overworked.

GRIFFIN: We're here to try and provide these services. And so when we have to reduce the quality of service we provide because we don't have the person power to do the work, and our residents are angry with us as a result, that's hard criticism to take, hence another component of that sense of burnout that people are feeling in the public sector.

VANEK SMITH: These are demographic changes that have been happening for a long time. The U.S. saw a big boom in its population between 1946 and 1964, the baby boomers. There are about 76 million of them. But since then, the fertility rate in the U.S. has been falling.

SEMUELS: And beginning in the 1970s, birthrates fell below the replacement rate across the developed world. So the replacement rate is basically the number of children each woman has to have to replace the existing population. That number is 2.1. So I have one child, Stacey. So I guess I'm going to need, I don't know, one and then another arm to stave off population decline.

VANEK SMITH: You're not pulling your weight, Alana.

(LAUGHTER)

SEMUELS: So anyway, demographers have been talking about this silver tsunami or gray wave, basically what would happen when populations in developed nations like the U.S. aged. But it didn't really happen.

VANEK SMITH: But during the pandemic, that changed.

RON HETRICK: So you're talking about people who are above the age of 65 who are like, I still enjoy working. And then after COVID, they're like, I'm not enjoying working anymore. So they all kind of took off at the same time.

SEMUELS: Ron Hetrick is a labor economist at Emsi Burning Glass. He's been looking at how retirements will affect the economy for a series of papers called the Demographic Drought.

HETRICK: Right now we have about 4.2 million excess people who are saying they're out of the labor force versus where we were back in February of 2020. More than half of those people who are out of the labor force now versus before are over the age of 55.

VANEK SMITH: And that has real consequences for the U.S. economy and our gross domestic product. It's basically seen as the measure of economic growth. And unless everyone gets a whole lot more productive with fewer people, we are going to be making less stuff, fewer goods and services. I mean, just think about what happens when one person on a team leaves and they are not replaced. Now, blow that up to a national scale.

HETRICK: A year ago I looked at our GDP per worker in the U.S., and then I said, what if we were able to fill all of our job openings? And it was, like, a point or two to GDP that we would have added had we done that.

VANEK SMITH: OK. But, you know, a lot of these are resourceful countries. Like, there's got to be something that they can do or at least have tried to reverse this decline.

SEMUELS: Well, Julia Griffin started looking into autonomous snowplows.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) I guess that does solve one part of the problem, right? I mean, you know, get the damn snow cleared.

SEMUELS: It turns out they don't exist yet, but automation and technology are definitely going to be a part of what replaces missing workers.

HETRICK: People are like, well, what if we have more babies? I'm like, OK, great, but that is not going to help us right now unless you know how to put a baby to work immediately.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, they're so hard to manage, too.

SEMUELS: I do not want to work with a baby.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) So another possible solution would be to increase the immigration rate. So net international migration in 2021 was just 247,000. That is about one-quarter of what it was in 2016. So that is one place that a workforce could come from potentially.

SEMUELS: But without big changes like that, Ron says the demographic drought is going to affect how we live.

HETRICK: You might be, I don't know, mowing your yard and making more food at home or taking care of your aging parents because that is what it looks like. You know, when you can't get people to fill those jobs, then you have to do that work.

VANEK SMITH: Right. And that could really affect how we live.

SEMUELS: But Stacey, Ron says there is something that people like you and I can do to help - be nicer to overloaded workers, especially people in the public sector.

HETRICK: Stop yelling at people because it's not their fault.

SEMUELS: Being nicer might actually help lure people like Julia Griffin out of retirement.

GRIFFIN: If we become a more civil society again, it may help to bring people back to the public sector.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, being nice seems like a very simple fix to a huge economic problem. But also, you know, in the case of Julia, I - like, her retirement plan sounded very dreamy. I do want her to at least feel like she has the option to retire if she wants to.

SEMUELS: You know, like a lot of older workers, she doesn't want to just quit entirely, she just wants a little bit more flexibility.

GRIFFIN: I'd love to be doing something part-time so that I have the ability to say, I'll see you in a month; I'm heading to Copenhagen and Stockholm for two weeks, and I'll be back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: Let's go to Copenhagen with Julia, Alana. First round of schnapps is on me.

SEMUELS: I'll meet you there.

MA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable with help from James Willetts and Josh Newell. It was fact-checked by Corey Bridges. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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