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Machines and roads show America is aging in more ways than one

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(Bloomberg) — It’s not just America’s population that is aging. Its capital stock — everything from factories to medical equipment — is, too.

The average age of all fixed assets stood at 22.8 years in 2015, the oldest in records going back to 1925, according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis figures. It’s been rising because companies and governments — state, local and federal — have been reluctant or unable to spend money to swap out the old for the new.

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That’s bad news for the economy and for Americans’ living standards. It means workers are toiling away at less-efficient factories and using computers that are not as powerful as they could be. Doctors are working at hospitals that are crumbling with wear. And commuters are having to put up with more frequent train delays and breakdowns.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s had to maneuver their car around a gaping pothole that the average age of government fixed assets was a record 24 years, according to the BEA data released Sept. 7 and updated annually. Within that category, highways and streets at 28.4 years in 2015 were also the oldest since 1925.

The private sector isn’t much better off, with fixed assets clocking in at 22.4 years, the oldest since 1955. Industrial equipment — including the machines, turbines and electrical apparatus workers use to churn out all kinds of stuff — was a decade old, close to the 10.2 years in 2010 and 2011 that was the oldest since 1939.

One particularly scary stat is that medical equipment and instruments (think X-ray machines) also are creeping up in age. At 4.7 years in each of the past two years, they were the oldest since 1945. Health care facilities, including hospitals, are also getting up there: On average, they’ve been around for 20.7 years, the longest since 1949, according to the BEA data.

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Housing is doing its part, too, in contributing to the aging of America’s capital stock. At 33.5 years, dwellings haven’t been this old since 1947.

Running counter to that trend, Americans have been enthusiastic about replacing their vehicles, driving down the average age to a more than two-decade low of 3.9 years. That’s been a boon to automakers who’ve seen their sales and profits swell in recent years.

Some things do get better with age — a vintage Bordeaux, for instance. But when it comes to bridges and machinery, aging is not something to be wished for.

—With assistance from Rich Miller.


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