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Why Productivity Growth is Faltering in Aging Europe and Japan

Many countries are experiencing a combination of declining birth rates and increasing longevity. In other words, their populations are aging. And graying populations pose serious issues for people, policymakers, and society. 

Health care costs rise, mainly because older people need more of it. Pension payments—whether from public or private plans—also increase at the same time there are relatively fewer younger workers paying into the pension systems. And there are also fewer people producing goods and services relative to the total population. The old-age dependency ratio—the number of people over 65 divided by the number of people between 15 and 64—rises. In other words, there are economic strains and many countries that haven’t faced them yet will soon.

One way to alleviate those strains would be to increase the amount of goods and services each worker produces—that is to boost productivity. Productivity is a major driver of economic growth. When it is rising, more goods and services are produced from the same amount of input—giving society more output to divvy up. When productivity is falling, GDP growth is retarded.

How aging affects productivity

But two recent papers by IMF economists suggest that there are limited prospects for productivity to come to the rescue. That’s because not only is the overall population aging, so are those still in the workforce. And the aging workforce is holding down productivity growth in both Europe and Japan.

The decline in productivity in Japan and Europe manifested itself in what economists call Total Factor Productivity, which is the portion of economic growth that is not the result of changes in inputs (such as capital and labor). Total factor productivity measures how efficiently capital and labor are used in the production process and is affected by such things as innovation, institutions and the quality of the workforce.

Productivity generally increases until workers are in their 40s, then tails off until they stop working. In Japan, for example, workers in the 40 to 49 age group were the most productive, with productivity declining after that. Authors Yihan Liu and Niklas Westelius calculated that the aging workforce could have reduced Japan’s annual total factor productivity growth by as much as 0.7–0.9 percentage points between 1990 and 2005. The decline was largely due to the reduction in the 40 to 49 age group. Starting in 2010, the 40 to 49 group increased a bit, but after 2025 shifts in the working age population age will again reduce total factor productivity growth.

The story is similar for 28 countries in Europe. Authors Shekhar Aiyar, Christian Ebeke, and Xiabo Shao found that the growing number of workers aged 55 and older on average “lowered total factor productivity growth by about 0.1 percentage points each year over the past two decades.” But that varied across countries. In Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, the Netherlands, and Germany, workforce aging shaved about 0.2 percentage points off annual total factor productivity growth.

Future could be worse

Under current demographic projections, the future will be worse. From 2014 to 2045 workforce aging will intensify in Europe and could reduce annual total factor productivity growth by 0.2 percentage points. But in countries where aging will be most pronounced—Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain—annual total factor productivity growth could be reduced by as much as 0.6 percentage points.

Aiyar, Ebeke, and Shao write that some of the effects of total factor productivity erosion from workforce aging might be offset in Europe by such policies as: