Yesterday the news services all reported that America’s National Center for Health Statistics now has determined the average person born this year will live to over 78 years old (read article here.) White women will live to 81, and white men to 76, while black women to 77 and black men to 70. Did you haar about this on the television, radio or see in the newspaper? What are you going to do about it?
We’ve known across our liftetimes that people are living longer. Substantially longer. So, hearing this sort of information becomes like the weather – we see it but we don’t really pay any attention. Unless there is a pending calamity (such as a thunderstorm) we pretty much ignore the information. But this really has some big implications. And for businesspeople, failing to plan for those implications could be deadly.
The most obvious implication is retirement. President Franklin Roosevelt declared the retirement age would be 65 when he established Social Security. Where did 65 come from? It was the life expectancy at the time. In other words, the program wouldn’t be too costly because at least half of Americans weren’t expected to survive to ever get a check. That’s no longer true. So can we continue to expect retirement at 65? If not, what does that mean for your business? When was the last time you hired someone knew who was over 55? If she can work until 75, is a 20 year potential loyalty too short? Maybe the company that seeks out people over 55 to hire will have an advantage? Will these older workers be more dedicated, harder working, less distracted by children at home and school, quicker to complete tasks due to more experience, make fewer mistakes due to better judgement, require fewer benefits (like child care or education subsidies), be more punctual and possibly even work for less pay?
Oh yes, but there’s the cost of health care. We all know health care costs are going up. Of course, 20 years ago people with strokes, heart attacks and cancer died. Now we know not only how to save their lives, but keep them alive for a very long time with medication, rehabilitation services and assisted living. Of course there’s a cost to this. How will we pay for this? Will health care jobs become less valuable? Will we import health care workers? Will we export health care work to foreign countries – asking people to go to India on vacation and replace a hip while there (medical tourism is one of India’s fastest growing businesses)? Will we change our lews and care standards so that health care is more automated and cheaper but with an allowable error rate? Who will benefit from changes in health care?
We used to accept health insurance companies saying that once you had one of these illnesses your insurance forever after would be extremely expensive – if you could obtain coverage at all. But should employers accept this? We now know cancer, heart attack and stroke survivors live decades without recurrences – so does it make sense to charge more for insuring these folks. If we keep adding up more and more people who are survivors of illness will we end up with the government the "insurer of last resort"? If we want to employ these people but we don’t because of heath care costs can we expect governmental intervention? Will we begin charging penalties for smoking, drinking, poor exercise habits? Will we lose our civil liberties as we strive to lower health care costs (no one thinks its a bad thing that we force everyone to wear a seat belt today – a clear loss of the civil liberty to choose whether to wear one)? What insurance practices will be necessary to compete? What insurance practices should employers seek out?
How about immigration? As we live longer the average age is going up as well. Where will the younger people come from to do all the manual work the retirees don’t do? Should we expect an impact on immigration reform that might involve allowing more workers into the country to offset the aging? Will that lead to an increase in demand for education and skills training? Will it change our use of English as the only language? Will it change the foods sold in grocery stores? Demand for housing, and the type of housing desired?
What about television programming? Will it remain totally focused on younger people in the "coveted advertiser age groups" below 54? Will it make sense to run movies at 7:00pm rather than 11:30 or midnight? What about retail stores, should they make changes for an older average population? Do huge shopping malls make sense if people are less interested in spending the day roaming this indoor paladium?
Average life expectancy is just a simple projection, made by the government every year. Easy to ignore while we run our business every day. But it has significant implications on many businesses – implications that could have an impact in as little as 5 years. Add onto that other easy projections – like urgan sprawl is causing water use to increase, and growing economies in China and India means exponential growth in demand for fuel, and increasing education in foreign countries means the standard of living is going up faster outside the U.S. than inside – and what do these mean for your business in 5 years? If you’re a homebuilder, should you be in the USA or India? If you run a college should you be opening a new campus in the U.S. or China? If you’re in health care, should your next hospital be in Chicago, or Thailand? If you’re a recruiter, should you be putting your management through foreign language school? If you make TV programs, should you expand your studio in Burbank, or open one in Bollywood? You don’t need a crystal ball. It’s not about having a highly accurate forecast. It’s just, are you really planning for a future that will most likely be different than the past? If you’re not, you’re sure putting a lot of faith in luck.