One of the most tiresome ag media fixations is the obsession with average farmer age. I have tried to counter such predictable laments, most recently in the February 2011 issue of Top Producer. Short version: Increasing average age is a feature, not a bug.
Illuminating this issue brings to light other unappreciated impacts of demographic trends on agriculture: the advancing age of not just operators but also owners; the effects of smaller, and especially later, families; and the changes in likely causes of death.
Longer Lives. First, career planning for many Baby Boomers did not take into account how long it would take for farm assets to fund their retirement. Healthy octogenarians, especially women, are more likely than not to reach their 90s.
Medical technology continues to add years to the end of lives faster than we imagined. Rather than being disbursed to coincide with retirement, inheritances in many cases aren’t even available for long-term care of the younger generation. Although a longer delay before having children can offset this extension, that trend will likely arrive too late for Generation X, born from 1961-81, and their Boomer parents.
The average age of U.S. women when they have their first child has risen from just under 23 in 1980 to over 26. This shift frustrates wannabe grandparents and makes physicians nervous because later childbirth increases the risk of some birth defects.
Parents And Careers. There are other curious consequences of late-childbearing trends. Although Boomers such as me could hope to watch their grandchildren marry, our children are less likely to do so.
On the economic front, those high earning and saving days after the last tuition payment (and after offspring enjoy full employment) at the peak of our careers will be shortened.
As members of Gen X reach their mid-50s, they often are coping with fractious teenagers, astronomical tuition and an unsettling retirement outlook. The cherry on the cake of this stress load could be parents who need increasing care for longer, as well.
It is against this backdrop that the patterns of our chronological expectations fall apart. Oncoming generations will have a markedly different late career than their parents or grandparents. Without a template for what to expect, most will struggle to improvise a new model of matching needs and resources.
Farm Expectations Unravel. For farmers, there is more unsettling news. More family wealth must be allotted to support seniors during extended twilight years as causes of death shift to lingering declines. Alzheimer’s disease is now No. 9 for men and No. 5 for women; in 2000, it was not in the top 10.
Land and other assets will effectively be frozen as older owners become averse to any change, no matter how financially advantageous. Equity could be badly utilized or unavailable. Siblings could seethe over family rental terms locked in decades earlier simply because change is too hard for grandma. This could happen even with thoughtful planning.
The taboos of talking about wealth, the overemphasis on illusory independence and plain bad arithmetic will cause unnecessary heartache and hardship on our farms. Worst of all is the conflicting anxiety and guilt we will feel as we watch loved ones march surprisingly into their 90s and beyond controlling copious wealth. It is my guess such miscalculations explode into family acrimony after a funeral too often now.
Although the lucrative financial planning industry certainly can offer solutions, nothing would work better than talking about these issues as a scheduled part of 60th birthdays. Better yet, price some life insurance. These are experts who are willing to bet real money on when you will die. I have no opinion on buying it, but it is a remarkably effective—albeit morbid—way to grasp our new mortality.