herald

Thursday 20 June 2019

No country for young people

With an ever-ageing population, health and pensions will dominate Irish society by 2060

The Ireland of 2060 is going to be a very different place from today. In just over half a century we will have a much larger but older population.

This leaves us facing a future of escalating health and pension budgets, rising inter-generational tension and later retirement ages.

By 2060, well within the lifetimes of many people reading this article, the Irish population will have risen to 6.7 million people, up from its current level of about 4.4 million. This would mean that the population of what is now the Republic of Ireland will have surpassed its pre-famine level of 6.5 million people, according to EU forecasts published yesterday.

Before ordering the Champagne and organising a celebration, think of the consequences. Ireland is now one of the youngest countries in Europe with six people of working age to every one over-65.

That's going to change, and fast. By 2060 there will be just 2.5 people of working age for every over-65. If things stay as they are this is likely to mean that those of working age will find themselves paying ever-higher tax and PRSI rates in order to fund pensions and health care for this growing army of older people.

But of course, if these predictions prove to be accurate, things can't stay as they are.

The first casualty of our aging population is likely to be retirement ages. For anyone currently in their 20s and 30s contemplating retirement at the age of 65 I have just three words of advice, forget about it.

As we look back on 2008 from the perspective of the second half of the 21st century the notion that people were compulsorily pensioned off in their mid-60s is going to seem so weird. By 2060 most of us will be still working well into our late 70s. It is only by postponing retirement until people are no longer physically or mentally able to work that we will be able keep the increase in pension and healthcare costs to manageable levels.

In order to keep working into their late 70s people are going to have to take much better care of themselves. Not alone will the current crackdowns on smoking and excessive drinking get much more severe, we can also expect society to become far less tolerant of those who undermine their own health.

The current public health campaigns that gently suggest to people that it might be good idea if they ate less and exercised more are likely to give way to a much tougher regime.

Out will go the obese-as-victims to be replaced by a relentless focus on personal responsibility. People will be told that it is up to them to stay in shape and that they can't expect society to rescue them from the consequences of their own over-indulgence.

SANCTIONS

Those who refuse adopt a healthy lifestyle will be subject to financial sanctions to reflect the extra cost of their irresponsibility. I fully expect the concept of gluttony, which is one of the Biblical seven deadly sins, to stage a triumphant return.

Even with a healthier population, a growing proportion of older people is almost certainly going to lead to increased inter-generational tension. How will the under-65s respond to having to shoulder an ever-heavier burden support all of these extra older people?

Pushing out retirement ages into the late 70s will only ease the explosion in pension and healthcare costs. Even today the most rapidly growing age group in most advanced countries is the over-80s. Unless there are unforeseen advances in medical technology between now and 2060 no-one will suggest keeping people at work into their 80s and 90s.

While such long-term forecasts are shrouded by uncertainty, one thing already seems certain: Ireland of 2060 will be no country for young people.

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