The 1870 U.S. Census enumerated the elderly— people 65 years of age or older—at about 1.2 million people (3 percent of the total population of 40 million). However, during the 20th century, with industrialization and changes in fertility and mortality patterns, a new age structure emerged for the population of the United States. Twenty-eight million people were added during the 1950s, at the height of the baby boom era that began after World War II and ended in 1964. The years between 1960 and 1980 were especially dramatic in their contribution: although the total population increased by nearly 19 percent, the population of people ages 65 and older increased by 34 percent (about 25 million in 1980). When age 65 was set as the threshold for Social Security benefits in 1935, the predicted average life expectancy at birth was barely over 60 years. In comparison, the average life expectancy presently is about 78 years. This growth and change has resulted in the “graying” of the U.S. population, and the phenomenon has not diminished since.
In 1986, 12 percent of the population was made up of senior citizens, or about 29 million people over the age of 65. By 2030, the proportion of Americans age 65 or older is predicted to increase to nearly 20 percent, or about 72 million elderly people. In 2000, the median age of the overall population was 35.3 years; barely a century ago, the median age was 22.9 years. In 2030, according to current Census Bureau projections, our median age will be 39.0 years. We are the oldest that our population has ever been, but younger than it is projected ever to be again.
The expansion of the elderly population has been especially pronounced for the “oldest old,” that segment of individuals who are age 85 and older. The proportion of the oldest old in our total population has increased so dramatically that it is no longer unusual to encounter people who are age 100 or more. By 2050, the Census Bureau’s middle-range projections suggest that the proportion of Americans ages 85 and older will be nearly as large as the proportion that were age 65 or older in 1930.
As the U.S. population continues to grow, demographers project that programs for the elderly will consume a larger share of federal tax dollars. In 1980, federal spending on the elderly was nearly a third of the federal budget and may well be nearly half the federal budget in 2015. The future problems with Social Security costs, as the baby boomers approach retirement, though, will pale in comparison to the continually rising costs of health care and prescription drugs; the expectations are that Medicaid and Medicare program costs will triple by 2015.
What these data suggest is that the aging of the population will have a significant effect on society. Median age has increased, as has life expectancy; people are living much longer, and therefore there are more elderly people in competition with the young for societal resources. Two questions emerge about the conundrum of the graying of our population: With the rising costs of Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security, and the challenges of demographic change, how are we going to take care of the graying population, without short-changing current and future generations? Also, how does the situation in the United States compare with the rest of the world, in both the industrialized and developing worlds?
Before 1960, Medicare and Medicaid did not exist as social programs. One of President Lyndon Johnson’s goals in his ”War on Poverty” in 1964 was to provide assistance for health care needs and extended medical insurance under the Social Security system and to reduce poverty among the elderly. Prior to the assistance of these social programs, about 35 percent of Americans over the age of 65 had incomes below the poverty line; in comparison, by the year 2000 the poverty rate for elderly people had dropped to 10 percent.
However, poverty figures don’t take into account factors that may push the elderly population into a fragile economic state, despite an income status that places them above the official poverty line. For senior citizens, a sizable chunk of income is claimed by rising health care costs. Alternate measures of poverty suggest that, all other factors being equal, if out-of-pocket health care costs were taken into account, nearly 20 percent of elderly Americans would be classified as poor.
Changes in the demographic landscape also contribute to a genuine concern for assessing the dependency thresholds in both younger and older age groups in our population. It is assumed in public policy that dependency thresholds exist for particular age categories; the dependency ratio is currently defined as the number of people under age 18 (children) or ages 65 and over (elderly) per 100 people ages 18 to 64 (defined as the working population). The dependency ratio in 1900 was 80; children accounted for nearly all of it (73), whereas in 1960, the ratio was 82, with child dependency at 65. With the baby boom population now in the midlife stage, the current dependency ratio at 62 (the child dependency ratio is 41) is the lowest it has been since the 1930s, but once this generation is beyond age 65, the dependency ratio will increase if current demographic trends continue. Census projections are that in 2050 the dependency ratio will be about 80, with children accounting for less than half. That increased dependency suggests that the needs and expenses of the elderly will outweigh that of youth.
However, current trends suggest that actual dependency for young people extends well beyond age 18, as many college students are moving back in with their parents after college. Furthermore, dependency for many older people now comes much later than age 65, as people put off retirement or move into new careers. Another concern is that of the “Sandwich Generation,” when adults simultaneously provide a home and/or care for both their parents and their children. This is reflected in debates over family leave policies to accommodate changing needs. Multigenerational households are becoming more commonplace and complex, as families adapt to the changes going on around them.
Compared with other industrialized nations, the U.S. population is relatively young, with 12 percent age 65 or older, compared to the “oldest” country, Italy, with 19 percent. Except for Japan, the world’s 20 oldest countries are all in Europe. But less developed nations also have large numbers of older citizens, and the numbers are increasing rapidly. Sixty percent of the world’s older population now lives in less developed countries; by 2030, this proportion is projected to increase to 71 percent as societies experience downturns in their natural population increases. This is similar to the decline that previously occurred in industrialized nations with decreases in fertility and mortality and resulting changes in the age structure.
Demographers project that the older population will become an ever-larger proportion of each nation’s total population across the globe. The older population within countries is also changing, and in many countries the oldest old are the fastest-growing segment of the population. In 2004, more than half of the world’s oldest old were living in six countries: China, the United States, India, Japan, Germany, and Russia. This simultaneous graying of population and overall decline in the total size of some populations poses new challenges for societal and policy adaptation to these demographic changes.
- Bengtson, Vern L. and W. Andrew Achenbaum, eds. 1993. The Changing Contract Across Generations. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Bengtson, Vern L. and Ariela Lowenstein, eds. 2003. Global Aging and Challenges to Families. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Binstock, Robert H. and Linda K. George, eds. 2006. Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, 6th ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- He, Wan, Manisha Sengupta, Victoria A. Velkoff, and Kimberly A. DeBarros. 2005. “65+ in the United States: 2005.” Current Population Reports. U.S. Census Bureau P23-209. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
- Living Old. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/livingold/).
- National Research Council. 1994. Demography of Aging. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
- Steuerle, C. Eugene and Jon M. Bakija. 1994. Retooling Social Security for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
- Torres-Gil, Fernando M. 1992. The New Aging: Politics and Change in America. Westport, CT: Auburn House.
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