THE AGING BOOM
As the 20th century draws to a close, an aging population is changing the face of the United States.
At the time of the American Revolution (1775-1783), colonists could expect to live to age 35, and only 2 percent of the population attained the age of 65 or older. In 1900 the life expectancy for most Americans was 47. By 1998 the average life expectancy at birth had jumped to 76, and a full 80 percent of all deaths occurred after age 65. When the post-World War II generation of Americans—those born between 1946 and 1964 and commonly known as the baby boomers—reach the age of 65, they will make up 20 percent of the population. Barring a calamitous epidemic or war, the percentage of persons over 65 will continue to be over 20 percent in the generations that follow.
The phenomenon is not confined to the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century, only 1 percent of the world's population lived past the age of 65. By 2050 it is likely that 1 in 5 people in the developed nations of Western Europe, North America, and Japan, and more than 15 percent of the population in many developing nations will be 65 and older. In the near future, 2 out of every 6 persons over 65 will live in India or China. Other nations with huge populations of older people will include Russia, Indonesia, and Brazil.
There are many reasons for this trend. Improvements in medical care and advances in nutrition have contributed to improvements in life expectancy. Eventually scientists may find ways to slow the aging process itself.
The rise in the number of older persons has created enormous challenges as well as great opportunities. As this trend continues, the United States will have to make vital policy decisions based on realistic projections of society's changing needs. How will a large retired population living on social security benefits and needing medical care impact the economic fortunes of the World? Will older people sap needed resources away from younger generations? Will the differing needs of older and younger people lead to intergenerational conflict? These are among the questions raised by the phenomenon some experts call the “new longevity.”
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