When it comes to the spiritual and narrative dimensions of how we make our way through the world, I generally subscribe to Paul Auster’s view that “lives make no sense.” But, speaking strictly in economic terms, they’re actually kind of boring and predictable. The graph below, courtesy of a recent report on demographics and the global economy by the British bank HSBC, does a pretty good job rendering that arc as a single line.
The basic message: When it comes to productivity (i.e. what they contribute to the economy), people see their most rapid, exciting growth during their 20s and maybe early 30s. After that it’s a longer, slower slog to peak personal output around 50, before a modest decline as they ease themselves toward retirement and, eventually, a plunge into economic obsolescence during old age.
Over at Business Insider, Jim Edwards sums it up thusly: “HSBC’s point is that if you’re in a country with a very young population, then you can expect to see productivity gains kick in over the next few years … but Jeez that’s depressing.”
HSBC’s red line of mortality is just a rough approximation. But it actually tracks pretty well with research based on Social Security data tracking the earnings trajectories of American men. The finding there was, again, the majority of income growth happens between 25 and 35. So, you know, try to make something of your 20s. If you’ve still got time, that is.