Here is one scenario for the year 2050:
The average person would have a life expectancy of 100, as compared to today's 75. Thirty-six percent of the population would be 65 or older, as against 12% today. People younger than 20 would comprise 16% of the population, versus 31% today. For every five people of prime working age, there would be four people older than 65.
"Horrifying" was how Alan Pifer characterized the picture he had just painted. And also less than likely, for as Pifer conceded, "Mortality rates at older ages may not continue to decline as they have in recent years."
Nonetheless, the former president of the Carnegie Corp., now head of that organization's Aging Society Project, was quick to voice concern about a trend he feels too many people are overlooking.
"Population aging," Pifer said, "is a phenomenon totally different from individual aging."
It is subtle. Population aging, Pifer said, "is something we don't see every day, but it is there."
And population aging is "an enormous social force," Pifer contends, "comparable in scale to any of the great social movements in past years: the Westward movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement."
While individuals inevitably grow old, he explained, societies do not necessarily age commensurately. Populations can become older or younger, depending on shifts in the proportion of people at various age levels. Fertility rates, infant-mortality rates and changes in life expectancies are all factors that affect a population's "youth" or "age."
"What is startling about the aging trend in America today," Pifer said, "is the rapid rate at which it is proceeding."
Specifically, he said, two "separate and simultaneous events" account for a rapidly aging America: "the speed with which the number of older and very old people is growing, and the dramatic decline in the proportion of young people--a decline expected to continue in the decades ahead."
With Aging Society Project staff director Lydia Bronte, Pifer has edited "Our Aging Society: Paradox and Promise" (W. W. Norton: $12.95). The collection of essays by experts from diverse fields analyzes the effects of population aging, and offers proposals for dealing with the changes and challenges an aging population will demand.
"Any institution--all institutions--must adapt in an aging society," said W. Andrew Achenbaum, a professor of history at Carnegie-Mellon University and senior scholar at the University of Michigan's Institute of Gerontology. "If they do not adapt, they will go away. They will be like monuments."
In an aging society, Achenbaum said at a meeting here not long ago with Pifer, Bronte and several other "Aging Society" contributors, "institutions have to be transgenerational in scope," instead of focusing on a specific group. "The future of an aging society is going to have to embrace its transgenerational nature."
Similarly, Bernice Neugarten said, an aging society will have to redefine its very notion of age. "What we now think will happen to people who reach 65, 75, even 85 and 95 is open to change," the Northwestern University professor of education and sociology said. "The stereotypes are not only open to change, but probably outdated. We had certain notions about ages, but these are rapidly becoming confused and less clear."
Retirement, she suggested "no longer is a marker of old age, and neither is health change a marker of old age."
Because age "is no longer a predictor of what people are doing at various ages," Neugarten said, "age is becoming less relevant." That fact "might lead us as a society to consider the development of age-neutral programs, rather than age-based." Government, after all, said Neugarten, "can't do anything about the fact that people are growing old."
"When we are talking about the 'third quarter of life concept,' " Harry R. Moody, deputy director of Hunter College's Brookdale Center on Aging, agreed, "we may have to move to something analogous to the thinking in the environmental movement--that is, in terms of renewable human resources."
Other Factors at Work
An aging population has particular significance in certain strata of society, University of Michigan sociology and social work professor Rose Campbell Gibson said. "Whereas the numbers of white children are decreasing," this specialist in the study of the black family said, "black children are not decreasing. Therefore, there is the potential for the black children to be the burden-bearers of an aging society."
Two "parallel trends" are at work today, said Fernando Torres-Gil: "at once the aging of society and the Latinization of society.
"That trend alone," said Torres-Gil, on leave from his professorship at the University of Southern California to act as staff director of the House Select Committee on Aging, "will have some interesting ramifications."
For example, "political power and competition," Torres-Gil said. "The elderly are an important political force; Hispanics are not yet. Will the priorities and objectives of Hispanics be different as society ages?"
In any case, as Torres-Gil observed, "we are all aging. Therefore we all have a lot at stake in this matter."
But an aging society is easily ignored, Alan Pifer maintains. Only recently, he said, as he faced the prospect of turning 65, did he begin to examine the huge changes an older population will mean to every institution in this country. "For me it was an absolute eye-opener," Pifer said. "I now look at society very, very differently."
"Our observation was that society as a whole was not aware of the changes going on around them," former English professor Bronte said. "People were not interested in anything related to aging."
"We have a fixation with current problems," Pifer concurred. "We find it difficult as a society to look at issues in the long term."
By contrast, he said, "In Japan, population aging is an issue of the highest priority. They are extremely worried about whether an aging work force is going to be able to compete in the world marketplace."
Currently, Pifer said, "The U.S. (with a declining rate of childbirth and 12% of the population past 65) is not the oldest society by any means." That distinction falls to Sweden, with 17% of its population over 65. However, said Pifer, "Japan is a younger country than we are, but aging very rapidly. Shortly after the end of the century, Japan will be the oldest."
Because "they are going to be the ones who are going to be supporting us all," children are a major factor in any aging society, Pifer said. Intergenerational dynamics thus affect the distribution of resources, as well as questions of social equity. And as society ages, he said, "you will see the emergence of new areas of moral uncertainty": as one example, prolonging or maintaining life through technological means.
The enormous impact of an aging population cannot be overestimated, Alan Pifer declared, and certainly the magnitude of potential changes would justify some pessimism. On the other hand, he said, "It's an exciting concept, and it's also a great opportunity for a much greater society."