Background and Significance

While virtually all countries around the globe are aging, the recognition of the relatively new phenomena of “aging societies” with its consequences for the well-being of entire populations is just becoming clear. Some countries like Germany and France have had over half a century to adapt to this demographic transition. Other countries have only experienced this in recent decades as a result of both increases in longevity, and even more importantly, decreases in fertility. China, Korea, and Thailand are among the well-studied countries that have had rapid demographic transitions. The United States stands in the middle of this transition (Kinsella and He 2009). Understanding the challenges of this demographic chang— especially in terms of labor practices and policies—calls for a major multidisciplinary effort from the population sciences including public health, economics and other social science fields.

The Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies (HCPDS) uses a multidisciplinary approach, integrating population health, and social and economic sciences to provide the best empirical evidence about the causes and consequences of population aging to labor policies, family dynamics, and community resilience. While economists have tackled these issues in recent years, they have focused primarily on matters related to pensions and retirement. Today, there is an urgent need to build on the recent advances in population health sciences, demography, and allied social science, and integrate them synergistically with economics. The HCPDS is uniquely positioned to identify and mentor junior scholars who will explore when and how demographic conditions create opportunities for people to work longer and to lead healthier lives in old age.

The Demographic Facts: Changes in longevity and fertility over the past 50 years

Since the 1950s, the United States has seen a ten-year increase in life expectancy at birth. That increase has been coupled with a substantial change in fertility between the baby boom years, when fertility rates were 118 per 1000, compared to 2013 when they hit a low of 63—almost half of what they were was 60 years earlier. Furthermore, whereas only half the people who paid into social security mid-century could expect to survive to reap the benefits post-retirement, now almost all men and women will live long enough to receive benefits.

In 1950, U.S. life expectancy among those who lived long enough to reach age 65 was 12.7 years for men, and 14.7 for women; currently, it is 15.3 and 19.6 for men and women, respectively. Consequently, the concepts of retirement and working into older ages will need to change. This is especially true for women, who live about 5 years longer than men after age 65 and who have spent fewer years in the labor force. More profoundly, when this change in life expectancy is accompanied with changes in labor force participation for women, shifting family dynamics (e.g. the rise of single parenthood and divorce) and rising inequality over the last decades in the U.S., there is an urgent need to think creatively about how to optimally adapt work, labor force participation, and retirement to these diverse needs. A further divide between social classes also exists, with more of those in the upper classes remaining both employed and married than those in lower and working classes, where unemployment and single parenthood continue to rise.

Population sciences over the last decades have played an increasingly important role in understanding both the determinants of aging, and the potential for societies to reframe labor practices at older ages by drawing on the strongest methods and approaches across a number of disciplines. For instance, novel approaches to causal inference that integrate both experimental and observational analytic approaches have been developed in epidemiology (Robins 1997).  These novel approaches share elements with econometric methods.  Public health has a tradition of randomized trials and experimental studies dating back over a century and was one of the first fields to work with statisticians on probability approaches to population health and well-being in early, nationally representative studies. Furthermore, the development of social epidemiology formally integrates epidemiologic methods with both econometric methods and newer approaches in behavioral economics, as well as understanding the biological embedding of social and economic conditions.  These new approaches form a deeper and insightful interdisciplinary approach building on the best methods from several population sciences.