L.A. population will be much older, more settled, study says

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The future of Los Angeles will be a grayer one, as aging boomers, slowing immigration and shrinking birthrates radically change the face of the county, a new study from USC predicts.

Seventeen years from now, senior citizens will make up nearly one-fifth of the county population, almost twice as many as at the start of the millennium, say Dowell Myers and John Pitkin of the USC Population Dynamics Research Group.

At the same time, the number of births will fall as families choose to have fewer children, the study predicts. Birthrates are already dwindling because immigration has plunged, sharply reducing the flow of newcomers who historically have had bigger families.

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The predicted result is fewer young workers to care for the growing ranks of the elderly – a trend that could pinch pocketbooks for families and the government.

The study predicts that over the next two decades, Los Angeles County will gain 867,000 senior citizens and lose 630,000 people younger than 25. A similar trend is underway nationwide but Los Angeles stands out because the shift comes after its earlier explosion in immigration and growth, Myers said.

“Los Angeles County is the most extreme example in California, and probably in the country” of the radical changes in population makeup to come nationally, he said. “Everything’s changed in California because we’re losing kids – and ground zero is Los Angeles County.”

Three years ago, senior citizens accounted for roughly 20 of every 100 adults of working age in Los Angeles County. Senior citizens are expected to account for 36 of every 100 adults in less than two decades.

By the middle of the century, the researchers predict, Los Angeles County will have more senior citizens per worker than California or the country as a whole – a reversal from where it stands today. Between Social Security, Medicare, pensions and other needs, “a lot is riding on the shoulders and wallets of the new generation of young adults,” the report said.

Experts have warned that governments across the country should prepare for the coming tide of the elderly. Growing demand for medical care will hit hospitals and state programs. Buses and walkable neighborhoods will be in demand for senior citizens who can no longer get behind the wheel. And a generation of smaller families will face new pressures as fewer adults try to provide for their aging parents.

Housing could also become an unexpected issue: Many houses are poorly suited for aging residents who want to stay in their current homes instead of moving into institutionalized care, said Adele M. Hayutin, director of demographic analysis at the Stanford Center on Aging. The costs of remodeling – installing bathroom grab bars or stairway handrails, for instance – are outweighed by the savings of fewer hospitalizations and other medical costs from falls, she said.

“Can we give tax incentives for people to make their homes age-friendly?” Hayutin asked. “Should it become the standard?”

The Los Angeles area already has some advantages for the elderly, including the proximity of grocery stores to housing, the Milken Institute found last year in its ranking of the “best cities for successful aging.” The instituted rated the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area 30th out of 100 large metropolitan areas.

But the area lags in the share of hospitals with geriatric services and the number of nursing beds, and also lost points for its high prices, Milken senior economist Anusuya Chatterjee said.

A graying Los Angeles County isn’t all bad news, said Fernando Torres-Gil, professor of social welfare and public policy at UCLA. Crime rates will probably tumble. The ranks of local volunteers could boom. And senior citizens get pensions or Social Security checks -- a stable, if modest, flow of revenue, he said.

“An aging population is a mature community – and that’s actually good,” Torres-Gil said. “On the other hand, our leaders will need to find ways to entice younger people and entrepreneurs to come to Los Angeles.”

Myers believes a big influx of transplants from outside the state is unlikely, since other states are also projected to be short on younger people and jobs for them will be plentiful elsewhere.

He points out that the share of Californians who are “homegrown” has risen with time. The new study predicts that this year, people born in California will become the majority in Los Angeles County. Within two decades, two-thirds of young adults will have been born and raised in the state, it projects.

Instead of relying on transplants, Myers argued that California must invest more heavily in educating its own youths, to make them better able to support their elders. “Every kid is extremely precious,” Myers said. “Nobody else is going to come rescue us.”

The study was based on analysis of U.S. census data over the last 13 years.


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