Looking Ahead: Demographics (and Workplace Conditions) Tell the Tale

July 22, 2019

In much of the developed world there is concern these days about what is called a demographic time bomb.

This is the fact that in many countries, women aren’t having enough babies to maintain the population, much less increase it. Population is falling dramatically in Italy, Germany, Japan and many other places. Even in the U.S., the number of babies born last year hit a 32-year low. We now have more people over 65 than we do people 15 or younger.

Senior Living Changing Demographics of caregivers

With our unemployment rate at record lows and the baby boomers beginning to retire, we’ll soon be experiencing severe labor shortages. Or will we? Many jobs that have existed for ages will soon go away. Self-driving trucks and cars will virtually eliminate the need for truck drivers or taxi and ride-sharing drivers. Many brick-and-mortar retailers will go out of business or require fewer sales clerks. There is even talk that professional positions, such as accountants, or certain physicians’ tasks, such diagnosis of diseases, will be replaced by artificial intelligence.

But while an artificially intelligent computer may be able to take over many roles that humans now occupy, it cannot prop up Social Security or Medicare. Unless changes are made to the way Social Security is funded, it is projected to run out of money by 2034, requiring benefits to be reduced to just 79 percent of what was promised to seniors. There are changes that can made to shore up the program, but in the current political climate, it’s difficult to see those changes being made.

These issues are hitting countries with even lower birth rates especially hard. What has mitigated the issue in the U.S. and other countries has been immigration, to reduce or reverse the rate of population decline and provide new taxpayers to shore up social safety nets. One country that has traditionally been the most resistant to immigration—Japan—is so desperate to solve its issues of population decline that it is finally willing to boost immigration to its shores. Yet again, in the current state of politics around the world, one wonders if increasing immigration is possible or even desirable.

Perhaps even more important side effects of these developments are human ones. A computer or a robot can take over some of the everyday tasks of caring for a senior in assisted living, memory care or skilled nursing communities. What it cannot do is offer a smile, swap stories about family or provide genuine comfort to an individual in distress. And would we really want a robot to offer comfort to a resident in hospice?

Even without these developments, one of the larger problems facing senior housing communities already is staff retention. Salaries and working conditions will both have to be improved moving forward to keep the problem from becoming more acute. Operators of senior living communities are aware of this and are improving working conditions, staff benefits and workplace amenities to address these issues. As interior designers for senior housing, when we are programming and space planning new communities, this idea of improving workplace amenities for precious staff becomes increasingly important.

While it’s true that for many caregivers in senior living, their work is a labor of love—as you can see in so many communities you visit—it is also a means of supporting their families. We need to make sure that these caring folks can support their families while loving the residents they care for.

Jonathan Blackwood
Principal, Communications Director