Structural Struggle

Why has the American economy grown so slowly since the Great Recession? This year, GDP growth will fall somewhere in the 1.5% to 1.8% range, below the 3% growth rate that is considered a sign of robust economic health. Critics have blamed everything from China’s slowdown to globally outsourced manufacturing to fiscal fights in Washington. But new research from economists at the Federal Reserve Board points to a different—and much simpler—explanation.


The researchers started with a demographic prediction model. The model recognizes that the economy was destined to grow rapidly when the workforce is heavily weighted toward young accumulators, as it was in the 1960s and 1970s when the Baby Boom generation entered the workforce. The good times continued as the labor force matured and the Boomers reached a high consumption stage of their lives.


But then the Fed economists asked: what happens when the Baby Boomers start to retire, as they did starting in 2005, and in increasing numbers since? The boomer generation had fewer children than their parents did, so the research shows that as the workforce aged and retired, there were fewer people in the workforce. Economic output inevitably declined, no matter what happened in China or the manufacturing sector.


Over the past decade, the research shows that what economists call “capital”—machines, factories, roads, buildings, etc.—has become abundant compared to labor, which has depressed the return that investors receive for investing in capital. This doesn’t just mean slower economic growth; it also leads to a decline in interest rates. This helps explain why interest rates rose in the 1960s and 1970s, and have gradually declined in the subsequent decades.


Their conclusion? The U.S.—alongside many other developed nations—is experiencing a decline in workers compared with retirees, which happens to coincide with the lingering effects of the financial crisis. The power of demography is like the tide; don’t blame the government or the Fed for not intervening, because they don’t have the power to overcome the shortage of workers.