The State of the Future

Florida, where nearly one in five residents is over the age of 65, represents the future. In 2023 the United States as a whole will have as high a percentage of elderly as Florida does today. Other developed nations will reach that stage even earlier: Italy (which already has more people over 60 than under 20) in 2003; Japan in 2005; Germany in 2006.

The Aging Boom . . .

Until the Industrial Revolution, people over 65 represented no more than 2 or 3 percent of the population. Today, in the developed world, 14 percent of people are 65 or over. In 30 years that percentage will have nearly doubled, to 25 percent.

This is not a statistical abstraction: Those future elderly are already here. Worldwide, by 2050, the over-65 population will triple, from about 400 million today to 1.3 billion. The youngest members of that group are now 14 years old.

. . . And Its Effects

The aging boom will have social and economic effects far beyond pension and health care systems. If the retirement age, which has been dropping, starts to climb back up (because more older people need to keep working), will younger workers remain stuck in lower-paying, less satisfying jobs? Will the older generation, instead of passing along accumulated wealth to children and grandchildren, consume more of that capital? It has been projected that, early in the next century, grandparents in the United States will outnumber grandchildren.

The "Oldest Old"

By the middle of the 21st century there will be 175 million people worldwide over the age of 85--six times as many as today. In the United States, the over-85 population will double by 2020 and again by 2040, when there are expected to be 14 million men and (predominantly) women in that age bracket. With the population explosion among the oldest old, "four-generation families are becoming increasingly common," the Census Bureau pointed out several years ago, "and the evolution of the Baby Boom may well result in a Great-Grandparent Boom."

It's True the World Over

The aging trend is also dramatic in the developing world, a UNESCO publication points out. "In developing countries the elderly make up a smaller proportion of the population than they do in developed regions, but their numbers are growing much faster than those of the rest of the population. . . . According to one study, the size of the older population in developing countries was expected to increase by almost 90 percent between 1980 and 2000, and by over 300 percent by 2025."

Sources: UNESCO Courier, Jan. 1, 1999; "Gray Dawn: The Global Aging Crisis," Peter G. Peterson Foreign Affairs, January 1999; Newsweek, March 1, 1999