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America's Population Time Bomb

Experts have warned of a "silver tsunami" as America's population undergoes a huge demographic shift in the near future.
The population of the U.S. is ageing. Recent findings from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that by 2035 older adults will outnumber children—a first in U.S. history. The upcoming changes could lead to a number of problems, with increased demands on health care services, the overall workforce and economy, experts have told Newsweek. It's not all gloom and doom though, as opportunities may also arise.
The U.S. population is already older than it's ever been, according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB). What's more, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to increase from 58 million in 2022 to 82 million by 2050—an increase of 47 percent—and the 65-and-older age group's share of the total population is projected to rise from 17 percent to 23 percent, according to the PRB.
The U.S. is not the only country with an aging population. In January 2023, China's National Bureau of Statistics revealed its population had fallen for the first time in decades, down approximately 850,000 in 2022. In Japan, projections from earlier this year suggest its population could decline by about 30 percent to 87 million by 2070—less than 50 years away—with seniors aged 65 or older making up 40 percent of the population.
A shift not unlike these may be on the way for America.
"The impending demographic shift, in which older adults in the U.S. will outnumber children for the first time in history, presents significant societal and economic challenges and opportunities," Patrick Mish, CEO of social work firm SilverStay, told Newsweek. "This shift, often called the 'silver tsunami,' is expected to impact multiple facets of society profoundly."
Cause For Concern
Living longer is often touted as a blessing—a long, rich and fortunate life is a privilege not afforded to everyone. But that doesn't mean it's without its challenges, for the individual and society as a whole, with experts queried by Newsweek about the incoming shift raising two main areas of concern: the economy and the well-being of older Americans.
"As a gerontologist, there are two things I'm most concerned about in a society where older people outnumber younger people," Dr. Kylie Meyer, assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, told Newsweek.
"An already challenging landscape in the elderly care industry is likely to get worse unless action is taken," Meyer explained. "A key issue is the lack of availability of formal and family caregivers for older persons living with chronic illness. More older adults may go without care, or younger family members may be further financially stretched to help older relatives."
A report from the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis found that in 2020 about 20 million Americans aged 55 and over needed assistance with daily tasks, such as preparing adequate meals or using the toilet—required to live an independent life. But unfortunately almost eight million people—40 percent of the over 55s concerned—receive no help at all.
The state isn't in much of a position to help out individuals financially with health care costs with Meyer saying the Social Security and Medicare benefits systems are "unprepared for this change." The PRB estimates that Social Security and Medicare expenditures will increase from a combined 9.1 percent of gross domestic product in 2023 to 11.5 percent by 2035 because of the "large share of older adults" in the population.
"It's possible benefits will be reduced or the age of eligibility raised," she continued, citing widely discussed methods for solving the impending Social Security funding cliff. But Meyer concedes that both methods "could increase poverty in later life."
The general health of an older generation is also a top concern.
"Thanks to advances in medical technology, people are living longer than ever before," Dr. Gary Small, chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, told Newsweek. "Unfortunately, our bodies and brains weren't engineered to function efficiently for the duration of today's average life expectancy, so people are living longer but not necessarily better.
"Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, cancer and numerous other age-related diseases lead to disability and dependence, and relatively fewer adult children than ever before are available to assist with caregiving—the economic and emotional burden of these trends are daunting."
Age-related illnesses will put a strain on health care systems.
"As the population ages, the demand for health care services will substantially increase, particularly those related to age-related conditions such as dementia, arthritis, heart disease, and cancer," SilverStay's Mish explained.
"This will require a significant expansion of health care infrastructure and services, including more specialized care facilities and care services," all of which will impact the national economy, he said.
The economic facts are clear cut: an aging population corresponds with a decline in work and spending, bringing lower income and sales tax revenues. As Meyer mentioned, the Social Security Administration—already riddled with concerns over an impending funding cliff that will see the agency become effectively bankrupt by 2035 unless lawmakers take action—has already conceded, more than a decade ago, that it will face a future funding crisis because of the number of elderly people, many of whom may not work or pay taxes on earned income.
"As the huge population of Baby Boomers retires—possibly reaching an all-time high for U.S. retirements in 2024—we're entering a period when millions of highly experienced, high-performance workers transition from being producers to being consumers," explains Ron Hetrick, senior labor economist at market analytics firm Lightcast.
"A large number of retirees is not a problem in itself; the proportion of retirees to new workers is the problem," he said. "That's because when people retire, their demand for goods and services remains high, but now we will have significantly fewer people to provide those goods and services moving forward."
What Can Be Done?
Experts aren't all pessimistic about the demographic shift. Hetrick said bringing a positive focus onto younger generations will help plug the economic gap.
"Attracting and retaining young talent is going to be the measure for regional success," he said. "If a community is losing its young people—whether through low birthrates or migration to other regions—while the elderly population is staying put, that region is going to be in economic trouble."
Hetrick explains that there is "no shortage of work," which is backed by recent research by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, particularly because of the "Great Resignation" or "Great Reshuffle" of workers throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
"The U.S. has far more people with college degrees than it has jobs that currently demand one," Criss explains. "So with young people to replace retirees, matching the talent supply to employer demand is going to be absolutely critical."
Others have said the changes actually provide an opportunity for innovation—despite the challenges. Henry Criss, CEO at the Fraum Center for Restorative Health, said it is "a chance to innovate in how we deliver medical care and adopt new technologies to improve access and treatment. We're expanding services like telemedicine and looking into new medical technologies."
But regardless of how to achieve a more prosperous future for older and younger generations alike, experts are in agreement that changes need to come sooner rather than later.
Personal injury lawyer Matthew Clark told Newsweek that policy changes that "encourage older adults to stay active and engaged" will keep them in the workforce longer, thus benefiting the economy.
"One idea is to raise the retirement age, so people can keep working if they want to," he suggested. "We could also give incentives to companies that offer flexible schedules and training for senior workers. The key is seeing our older population as an asset, not a burden."
May 12, 2024 12:25
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