Today, the elderly account for an increasing percentage of the U.S. population as a result of nationwide improvements in health care, nutrition, education, and general living standards. In 1997, one in eight Americans were elderly (age 65 and over). By 2030, one in five could be elderly. As the Baby Boom generation reaches age 65 (between 2010 and 2030), this trend towards an elderly population explosion poses a variety of challenges to U.S. policy makers.
In 1997, there were 34.1 million people in the U.S. aged 65 and over, comprising 13 percent of the total population. By comparison, there were 12.3 million elderly Americans in 1950 (8.1 percent of the population) and 3 million in 1900 (4.1 percent).
America is evolving from a “young” society to a “middle-aged” one. The median age of Americans was 35 years in 1996, up from 30 in 1980 and 23 in 1900. The median age is expected to increase to 37 in 2010 and 39 in 2030.
The “oldest old,” those aged 85 and over, make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. In 1996, an estimated 3.8 million persons were aged 85 or older and approximately 1.4 million were aged 90 or older. Between 1960 and 1994, the oldest old population increased 280 percent compared with a 100 percent increase for those 65 and older. Projections suggest that the population aged 85 and over will increase by 54 percent, from 3.7 million in 1996 to 5.7 million in 2010, and may reach 18.2 million in 2050.
The rate of growth of the U.S. elderly population surpassed that of the total U.S. population during the 20th century. From 1900 to 1997, the number of persons aged 65 and older has increased eleven-fold, from 3.1 million to 34.1 mil
lion, while the total population has tripled. By 2050, projections show that the elderly population will more than double to about 79 million.
Although there will be steady growth of the elderly from 1990 to 2010, the population aged 65 and over will jump nearly 80 percent when the Baby Boom generation retires (from 2010 to 2030). By 2030, the elderly will account for one-fifth of the total U.S. population.
After the last of the Baby Boom generation reaches 65 in 2030, the rate of growth of the elderly population will decline and the proportion of elderly in the total U.S. population will remain unchanged until at least 2050.
Characteristics of the Elderly
Average life expectancy in the U.S. is almost 76 years: 79 years for women and 72 for men. However, persons who reach the age of 65 have a life expectancy of 82.4 years, 17.4 more years to live. White men can expect to live 15.7 more years and black men can expect to live 13.6 more years, while life expectancy for white women is 19.4 additional years and 17.6 for black women. The difference between male and female life expectancy at birth is decreasing slightly, and the ratio of men to women among the elderly is expected to grow in the future as male longevity increases.
In 1995, elderly women outnumbered elderly men ten to seven, and among the oldest old, women outnumbered men five to two.
In 1995, whites accounted for 89.6 percent of the elderly population, but only 83 percent of the U.S.
. Blacks accounted for 8.1 percent and Asian and Pacific Islanders 2.3 percent of the elderly population in 1995, while Hispanics, who may be of any race, comprised 4.5 percent of the elderly. By 2030, the proportion of elderly whites should drop to 84.7 percent, while the share of blacks will increase to 9.9 percent and Asian and Pacific Islanders to 5.3 percent. Hispanics will make up 11.2 percent of the elderly. The expected increases are due to higher rates of past fertility among minority populations, and to higher immigration rates for Asian and Pacific Islanders and Hispanics.
In 1997, 66 percent of elderly in the U.S. had completed high school; this will increase to over 75 percent in 2010 and to nearly 88 percent in 2020. Projections also show that, from 1990 to 2030, the proportion of elderly with a bachelor’s degree or more will increase from 11 to 24 percent.
The median income of the elderly has more than doubled since 1957 (in constant dollars). However, there are gender disparities in income. In 1996, elderly men had a median income of $17,768, compared with $10,062 for elderly women. This income difference can be attributed to characteristics that include older average age, widowhood, lower educational attainment, and differing workforce status.
Today’s older Americans enjoy a higher standard of living than any preceding generation of elderly. However, of the 35.6 million Americans living below the poverty level in 1997, 9.4 percent were aged 65 or older. The percentage of elderly living in poverty in 1997 was 10.5 percent, a higher rate than the Americans aged 35-59. Poverty rates within the older population increase dramatically with age.
Rates of poverty for minority elderly are two to three times higher than for the white population. As of 1997, 9 percent of white elderly lived in poverty, compared with 26 percent of black elderly and 23.8 percent of Hispanic elderly
Seventy-eight percent of men and 52 percent of women aged 65 to 69 were married in 1994. Among those 85 and over, 57 percent of men and 13 percent of women were married. Marriage in old age carries with it many positive effects: incomes are higher among couples; spouses provide care during illness; and elderly couples derive benefits from companionship.
Because they generally live longer, more elderly women than men live alone. In 1997, 7.6 million women 65 and older lived alone, compared with 2.3 million men. Nearly half of the oldest old live alone. Poverty rates are higher among the elderly who live alone: in 1997, 20 percent of the elderly who lived alone were below the poverty level, almost double the rate of all elderly..
Over half of America’s elderly population live in just nine states: California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey. Florida has the largest proportion of elderly in the U.S. with 18.5 percent of residents aged 65 or older. Alaska (5.3 percent) and Utah (8.7 percent) have the least percentage of elderly.
The greatest rates of growth in the elderly population are occurring predominantly in the West. Between 1990 and 1997, the elderly population increased by 49 percent in Nevada, 43 percent in Alaska, 25 percent in Arizona and 25 percent in Hawaii. The regions with the slowest growth are New England and the Midwest.
Yet, most elderly people do not move. Only 6 percent of the elderly population changed their residence between 1992 and 1993. Of those elderly who moved, almost half remained within the same metropolitan area and 78 percent moved to another home in the same state.
The elderly population is extremely diverse in its social, economic, and health status. Most people age 65 to 74 are healthy, active and independent. The oldest-old, however, are more likely to face the problems of failing health, widowhood and loss of independence.
While there has been a declining trend in median age at retirement since the 1950’s for both men and women, the trend has begun to level off. In 1995, approximately two-thirds of men and one-half of women aged 55 to 64 were working, but few were still working at age 75 and older. These ratios are not expected to change dramatically over the next decade.
The U.S. nursing home population increased by 29 percent from 1980 to 1990. In 1990, 1.6 million elderly lived in nursing homes and the number of elderly requiring nursing home care between 1990 and 2030 is expected to triple. Yet, the elderly population will only double in the same period. The implications are that the future elderly population is more likely to live alone and less likely to have family caregivers.
A Global Perspective
In 1995, there were 366 million people, or 6.4 percent of the total world population, aged 65 and over. This number is expected to increase to 418 million (6.8 percent) by the year 2000, and increase throughout the twenty-first century.
Of all persons aged 65 and over, 57 percent currently live in developing countries; by 2020, this figure is expected to reach 67 percent. The elderly population will grow much faster in developing countries than in developed countries in future decades. The current average annual growth rate of the elderly population is 2.3 percent in developing countries compared with 1.6 percent in the developed world.
In European countries, the elderly will constitute 20 to 25 percent of the population by 2020. Japan, the most rapidly aging society in the world, has an elderly population that is expected to continue to grow dramatically in the future from 14 percent in 1994 to 26 percent in 2020.
This summary was prepared in February 1997 by Rachel Shapiro of the Population Resource Center and reviewed by Kevin Kinsella, Chief, Aging Studies Branch, U.S. Bureau of the Census. It was funded by a grant from the Retirement Research Foundation. Sources include: 65+ in the United States, U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996; J. Treas, “Older Americans in the the 1990s and Beyond,” Population Bulletin, PRB (May 1995); J. Siegel, “Aging into the 21st Century,” Administration on Aging (AOA), 1996; D. Fowles and A. Duncker, “A Profile of Older Americans: 1996,” AOA, 1996; and K. Kinsella and Y. Gist, Older Workers, Retirement, and Pensions, U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995. For more information, please contact the Center at 1725 K Street, N.W., Suite 1102, Washington, D.C. 20006 (202-467-5030) or 15 Roszel Road, Princeton, NJ 08540 (609-452-2822)