An Aging America Requires New Approaches

In just over a decade, a demographic transformation will occur: older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history.

Last month the U.S. Census Bureau trumpeted the projections in a new report. At PCOA, we have seen an increase in calls from local newspaper and radio reporters asking if we see a similar trend in the aging population in Pima County, and on a deeper level, what challenges older adults will face as their share of the population increases, and how systems will be adapted or changed in response to the growing population of older adults.

Already, the middle-aged (those in their 50s, according to demographers) outnumber children, but the country will reach a new milestone in 2030. That year, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that older adults will edge out children in population size: People age 65 and over are expected to number 78.0 million, while children under age 18 will number 76.4 million.

Starting in 2030, when all boomers will be older than 65, older Americans will make up 21 percent of the population, up from 15 percent today. By 2060, nearly one in four Americans will be 65 years and older, the number of 85-plus will triple, and the country will add a half million centenarians.

Challenges and opportunities of an aging population

In the 1960’s, the average life span in the U.S. was 51 years for men and 54 for women, compared to today’s life expectancy of 76 and 81, respectively. These huge leaps in longevity have been made possible by improvements in public health, nutrition and medicine. Vaccinations and antibiotics have greatly reduced deaths in childhood, and safety measures reduced workplace accidents and deaths.

The most significant contributor to the age boom in our community, and communities across the nation, is greater longevity. This trend is not limited to the boomer generation, but will continue to hold true for gen x-ers and millennials. In other words, a larger older population is here to stay, in the U.S. and around the world, and policies, institutions, and models that were created in decades past need to be redesigned, not just to support an older population, but to effectively tap into older people as a resource and a societal advantage.

People are working later in life and remaining healthy and active well into their later years, yet views of and opportunities for older workers, as well as workplace policies, are largely stuck in the past. Companies that have adapted and embraced older workers have found older workers to be reliable, loyal, and make relatively few mistakes. Others have found efficiencies in pairing older workers with greater subject matter expertise and experience, and younger workers with greater technology skills and new approaches to train and support one another. Such practices are far from the norm, but given immediate skilled labor shortages across multiple fields, employers must begin to view older workers, not as liabilities or less desirable employees, but as assets and answers to address gaps in workforce and knowledge.

We continue to see more housing options and alternative transportation modes designed to support more livable communities for all ages, and improve access and affordability for older people and adults with disabilities, but there is much work yet to be done. PCOA is part of conversations and planning related to making Tucson an age-friendly community now, and actively working to address the livability of this community for older people. In all of our work, we aim to assist people in remaining healthy, vibrant and active as they age, and to maintain quality of life in their later years.

Increased longevity is both a challenge and an opportunity. As a community, our challenge is to garner available resources to meet the needs for caring for an increasing number of older people, including a larger proportion who are living to an age of frailty. At the same time, we have the opportunity to benefit greatly from the wealth of expertise and experience older people have to offer, in the workplace, through volunteerism, as mentors and as community leaders. This greater vitality later in life can be part of the solution to some of the challenges we face if we alter our practices to make space for full engagement from older people, and make better use of the gift of longevity for the benefit of our society.

 

W. Mark Clark
President and CEO

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