A Key Fact the Current Illegal Immigration Debate Overlooks

Lost amidst the hubbub about Arizona's recent legislation to crack down on illegal immigration, is the simple fact that most baby boomers, approximately one-third of America's labor force, will reach the retirement age of 65 during the next two decades.

Leave aside, for a moment, the arguments about the legitimacy of being a legal citizen and human rights. Our country isn't producing enough new workers to replace those who retire: according to the US Census Bureau there are about 77 million baby boomers and only 46 million people in generation X and generation Y.

Where will the new workers come from? It's immigration, or else a miraculous breakthrough in robotics engineering.

In 2008, the first of the baby boomers hit the age of 62, which is significant because it's the age that the average worker retires. Although baby boomers will likely work longer than predicted because of extended life expectancies and over-extended retirement plans, health conditions and the effects of old age will prevent many from working full-time into their 70s and force others to retire much earlier.

By 2020, if not sooner, we'll be competing with countries in Western Europe, Japan, and elsewhere in the world to attract immigrants. If we're unsuccessful, much could change for the worse for our economies and in our lives:

  • Of course, annual increases in social security, Medicaid, Medicare, and insurance payouts are already steep, and they will steepen even more sharply in the coming years.
  • Home values may once again decline because many Baby Boomers will need to sell or downsize to cover their retirement expenses.
  • For the same reason, savings rates are also likely to shrink because Baby Boomers will be cashing out their stocks and IRAs and won't be earning enough new income to continue their current rate of savings.
  • Accordingly, interest rates would need to rise to encourage more savings. This could trigger a return of runaway inflation.
  • Taxes are also likely to rise to pay for the needs of an aging population. This could also trigger more inflation.
  • Employers will need to pay higher salaries as they compete for a dwindling supply of workers, especially for services that cater to seniors, like health care. The added inflationary pressure will likely cause the price of goods and services to rise.

Sound farfetched?

Not at all, according to forecasts from leading political scientists and economists, such as those printed in recent books from George Friedman and Jacques Attali, and from national and state demographers, such as Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy. In fact, the above scenario might be an understatement. Some observers expect a return to the stagflation that crippled the economy in the late 70s and early 80s, but for a more extended period of time.

One effective response that political scientists, economists, and demographers all agree on is to attract more, more, and more immigrant labor.

Immigrants can provide the specialized skills we need to replace retiring engineers and researchers, executives and managers. They can fill vacant positions for doctors, nurses, and aides in health care facilities and nursing homes. They can also provide the manual labor needed to harvest the fields and operate factories.

Like it or not, within the next 10 years we'll not only be begging immigrants, legal and possibly illegal, to stay, we'll be begging them to live here and help us keep the country's economy afloat.

If we keep passing laws like Arizona's, what kind message will this send?

Could it add up to a record of hostility that causes workers we need from India, from Eastern Europe, from Latin America, and from elsewhere to ignore the call to help us prop up our economy when it begins to sag beneath the sheer number of retiring Baby Boomers a few years from now?

(You can learn more about philanthropic communications consultant Paul Bachleitner at his website www.bachwriter.com.)

The Great Generational Divide or the Cross-Generational Solution to Work Satisfaction?

I have been in what some people would call a “generational rock and a hard place” for the last few months. I am a young person in the foundation field and one of my passions is helping young people learn how to advance in the philanthropic sector but one of my professional duties at the foundation is managing a project on older adult civic engagement. A big piece of this project is figuring out how to keep baby boomers in my community engaged as they begin to retire or change careers. Talk about competing priorities. On one hand I know how important it is to keep baby boomers engaged, on the other hand I am hearing from young people on a daily basis that they can’t advance because baby boomers won’t leave the philanthropic sector and make room for young people to advance. I have finally realized that this isn’t an “either, or” proposition. Baby boomers at foundations and in the nonprofit sector as a whole have great expertise that they contribute to the field but they have created positions for themselves where they work 80 hours a week and refuse to take vacation (or sick days for that matter), with the idea that “this whole place would fall apart without me”. Young people want more responsibility but would also like to have a life outside of their job. There are lots of explanations for why this is but one of the most probable that I have heard is that Gen X was raised as latchkey kids and saw the family sacrifices that their parents had to make to slowly climb the career ladder. They also saw their parents lose their pensions in mass layoff and Enron scandals, so they know that the old paradigm of work hard for the same company for 40 years and retire is no longer realistic.

What if a new way of working was created that still kept baby boomers engaged but allowed them to reduce the number of hours that they work so that they could keep health benefits and stay involved in a career that they love? What if this same new way of work allowed Gen X the flexibility to spend time with their families or take on a second job (to pay down the massive student loan debt that so many have)? If we started thinking of the program officer position (of any other foundation or nonprofit staff member for that matter) as a collection of tasks that can be completed by one or many people depending on the time available for each worker. How much more effective would a foundation be if instead of one program officer, they now had three sharing that same 80 hour a week position? The foundation would now have 3 times as many connections in the community, 3 diverse perspectives on how to solve social problems, and 3 great ambassadors for the foundation’s work.

What refinements (or significant changes) do you think are needed to create a foundation workplace that is supportive for multiple generations?