June 30th saw the release of the 65+ in the United States 2010 U.S. Census Bureau Report, the latest overview of how older Americans are faring socially and economically. Brace yourself: “the U.S. population is poised to experience a population aging boom over the next two decades.” Uh oh, right? Despite the fact that longer lives reflect a remarkable public health achievement—the redistribution of death from the young to the old—there’s more hand-wringing than back-patting going on.
Much of the apprehension centers on the “dependency ratio”: the fact that the number of people over 65 is growing and the number of people the workforce shrinking. Fiscal crisis! Social collapse! In fact that ratio’s been falling pretty steadily for over a century. Over the same period national GDPs, along with lifespans, have rapidly increased.
People don’t turn into economic dead weights when they hit 65. As the Census Report documents, they’re participating in the labor force in ever-greater numbers. It also notes that “the dependency ratio does not account for older or younger people who work or have financial resources, nor does it capture those in their ‘working ages’ who are not working,” and that many caregivers are over age 65. Because it’s unpaid, this work is omitted from our national accounting. Millions more older Americans would like to continue to contribute, but are prevented by age discrimination in the workplace, which relegates them to jobs that don’t take advantage of their skills and experience—if they land one at all.
The “approaching crisis in caregiving” that the Census Report calls out is real and growing more acute. But people are healthier as well as longer-lived, and are not an inevitable sink for healthcare dollars. According to the ten-year MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America, once people reach 65, their added years don’t have a major impact on Medicare costs. As the Census Report details, the number of Americans aged 65+ in nursing homes declined by 20 percent in the last decade, “from 4.6 percent in 2000 to 3.1 percent in 2010.” That’s three percent of Americans over 65.Chronic conditions pile up, but they don’t keep most older Americans from functioning in the world, helping their neighbors, and enjoying their lives.
The Census Report includes an oft-cited statistic: “An unprecedented shift will occur between 2015 and 2020, when the percentage of people aged 65 and over in the global population will surpass the percentage of the very young (aged 0-4) for the first time.” This means that by 2020 there’ll be one older adult for every child—far better for children’s welfare than the inverse, as well as for the women who once had to produce enough of them to survive famines, wars, and epidemics.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that the projections that have Americans so worked up are largely the result of a specific historical phenomenon: the cohort effect of the baby boom growing old—the proverbial bulge in the python. This effect will peak by midcentury, although, tellingly, few graphs extend far enough out to show the downturn. Much was made of the first boomers turning 65 in 2011, but a 2013 milestone went largely unremarked. That’s when millennials first outnumbered baby boomers. The number of boomers will continue to decline.
Even countries that are rapidly aging can produce “youth bulges”, as demographer Philip Longman pointed out in 2010, describing them as looming disasters “with all the attendant social consequences, from more violence to economic dislocation.” Can’t win for losing. In that same Foreign Policy article Longman warned of a “’gray tsunami’ sweeping the planet.” Journalists jumped on this frankly terrifying metaphor, and “gray tsunami” has since become widely adopted shorthand for the socioeconomic threat posed by an aging population.
What we’re facing is no tsunami. It’s a demographic wave that scientists have been tracking for decades, and it’s washing over a flood plain, not crashing without warning on a defenseless shore. This ageist and alarmist rhetoric justifies prejudice against older people, legitimates their abandonment, and fans the flames of intergenerational conflict. If left unchallenged, ageism will pit us against each other like racism and sexism; it will rob us of an immense accrual of knowledge and experience; and it will poison our response to the remarkable achievement of longer, healthier lives.