Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society

The Graying of the United States

A tall man with white hair and moustache and glasses in casual business attire is shown flanked by two elderly women on his right and two elderly men on his left. The elderly people are all wearing blue T-shirts reading “Keep Social Security Strong: A A R P.” A banner in the background can also be seen, reading “Social Security Benefits America.”
As senior citizens begin to make up a larger percentage of the United States, the organizations supporting them grow stronger. (Photo courtesy of Congressman George Miller/flickr)

What does it mean to be elderly? Some define it as an issue of physical health, while others simply define it by chronological age. The U.S. government, for example, typically classifies people aged sixty-five years old as elderly, at which point citizens are eligible for federal benefits such as Social Security and Medicare. The World Health Organization has no standard, other than noting that sixty-five years old is the commonly accepted definition in most core nations, but it suggests a cut-off somewhere between fifty and fifty-five years old for semi-peripheral nations, such as those in Africa (World Health Organization 2012). AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) cites fifty as the eligible age of membership. It is interesting to note AARP’s name change; by taking the word “retired” out of its name, the organization can broaden its base to any older people in the United States, not just retirees. This is especially important now that many people are working to age seventy and beyond.

There is an element of social construction, both local and global, in the way individuals and nations define who is elderly; that is, the shared meaning of the concept of elderly is created through interactions among people in society. This is exemplified by the truism that you are only as old as you feel.

Demographically, the U.S. population over sixty-five years old increased from 3 million in 1900 to 33 million in 1994 (Hobbs 1994) and to 36.8 million in 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau 2011c). This is a greater than tenfold increase in the elderly population, compared to a mere tripling of both the total population and of the population under sixty-five years old (Hobbs 1994). This increase has been called “the graying of America,” a term that describes the phenomenon of a larger and larger percentage of the population getting older and older. There are several reasons why the United States is graying so rapidly. One of these is life expectancy: the average number of years a person born today may expect to live. When we review Census Bureau statistics grouping the elderly by age, it is clear that in the United States, at least, we are living longer. In 2010, there were about 80,000 centenarians in the United States alone. They make up one of the fastest-growing segments of the population (Boston University School of Medicine 2014).

People over ninety years of age now account for 4.7 percent of the older population, defined as age sixty-five or above; this percentage is expected to reach 10 percent by the year 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau 2011). As of 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 14.1 percent of the total U.S. population is sixty-five years old or older.

It is interesting to note that not all people in the United States age equally. Most glaring is the difference between men and women; as shows, women have longer life expectancies than men. In 2010, there were ninety sixty-five-year-old men per one hundred sixty-five-year-old women. However, there were only eighty seventy-five-year-old men per one hundred seventy-five-year-old women, and only sixty eighty-five-year-old men per one hundred eighty-five-year-old women. Nevertheless, as the graph shows, the sex ratio actually increased over time, indicating that men are closing the gap between their life spans and those of women (U.S. Census Bureau 2010).

A line graph depicting the narrowing percentage by which women outlive men, years 1990, 2000, and 2010.
This U.S. Census graph shows that women live significantly longer than men. However, over the past two decades, men have narrowed the percentage by which women outlive them. (Graph courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau)