The Future of American Growth

CAMBRIDGE – The near-term outlook for the US economy has improved, owing to the sharp increase in household wealth in 2013, together with the end of the fiscal drag caused by the increase in tax rates in 2012. The United States now has a chance to raise real (inflation-adjusted) per capita GDP faster than the feeble 1.7% average rate recorded during the four years since growth resumed in the summer of 2009.

Of course, significantly faster GDP growth in 2014 is not guaranteed. For starters, achieving it requires overcoming the negative impact of the jump in long-term interest rates that followed the Federal Reserve’s announcement last June that it would likely end its asset-purchase program this year. Moreover, the cloud of rising budget deficits at the end of the decade – and exploding national debt after that – is also discouraging investment and consumer spending.

But let’s look beyond 2014 and ask what will happen to US economic growth over the longer term. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that real per capita GDP growth will slow from an annual rate of 2.1% in the 40 years before the start of the recent recession to just 1.6% between 2023 and 2088. The primary reason for the projected slowdown is the decrease in employment relative to the population, which reflects the aging of American society, a lower birth rate, and a decelerating rise in women’s participation in the labor force. While the number of persons working increased by 1.6% per year, on average, from 1970 to 2010, the CBO forecasts that the rate of annual employment growth will fall to just 0.4% in the coming decades.

A drop in annual growth of real per capita GDP from 2.1% to 1.6% looks like a substantial decline. But even if these figures are taken at face value as an indication of future living standards, they do not support the common worry that the children of today’s generation will not be as well off as their parents. An annual per capita growth rate of 1.6% means that a child born today will have a real income that, on average, is 60% higher at age 30 than his or her parents had at the same age.