Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society

Baby Boomers

Of particular interest to gerontologists today is the population of baby boomers, the cohort born between 1946 and 1964 and now reaching their 60s. Coming of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, the baby boom generation was the first group of children and teenagers with their own spending power and therefore their own marketing power (Macunovich 2000). As this group has aged, it has redefined what it means to be young, middle-aged, and now old. People in the boomer generation do not want to grow old the way their grandparents did; the result is a wide range of products designed to ward off the effects—or the signs—of aging. Previous generations of people over sixty-five were “old.” Baby boomers are in “later life” or “the third age” (Gilleard and Higgs 2007).

The baby boom generation is the cohort driving much of the dramatic increase in the over-sixty-five population. shows a comparison of the U.S. population by age and gender between 2000 and 2010. The biggest bulge in the pyramid (representing the largest population group) moves up the pyramid over the course of the decade; in 2000, the largest population group was age thirty-five to fifty-five. In 2010, that group was age forty-five to sixty-five, meaning the oldest baby boomers were just reaching the age at which the U.S. Census considers them elderly. In 2020, we can predict, the baby boom bulge will continue to rise up the pyramid, making the largest U.S. population group between sixty-five and eighty-five years old.

A population pyramid depicting the U.S. population by age and sex, years 2000 and 2010.
In this U.S. Census pyramid chart, the baby boom bulge was aged thirty-five to fifty-five in 2000. In 2010, they were aged forty-five to sixty-five. (Graph courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau)

This aging of the baby boom cohort has serious implications for our society. Healthcare is one of the areas most impacted by this trend. For years, hand-wringing has abounded about the additional burden the boomer cohort will place on Medicare, a government-funded program that provides healthcare services to people over sixty-five years old. And indeed, the Congressional Budget Office’s 2008 long-term outlook report shows that Medicare spending is expected to increase from 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 to 8 percent of GDP in 2030, and to 15 percent in 2080 (Congressional Budget Office 2008).

Certainly, as boomers age, they will put increasing burdens on the entire U.S. healthcare system. A study from 2008 indicates that medical schools are not producing enough medical professionals who specialize in treating geriatric patients (Gerontological Society of America 2008). However, other studies indicate that aging boomers will bring economic growth to the healthcare industries, particularly in areas like pharmaceutical manufacturing and home healthcare services (Bierman 2011). Further, some argue that many of our medical advances of the past few decades are a result of boomers’ health requirements. Unlike the elderly of previous generations, boomers do not expect that turning sixty-five means their active lives are over. They are not willing to abandon work or leisure activities, but they may need more medical support to keep living vigorous lives. This desire of a large group of over-sixty-five-year-olds wanting to continue with a high activity level is driving innovation in the medical industry (Shaw).

The economic impact of aging boomers is also an area of concern for many observers. Although the baby boom generation earned more than previous generations and enjoyed a higher standard of living, they also spent their money lavishly and did not adequately prepare for retirement. According to a 2008 report from the McKinsey Global Institute, approximately two-thirds of early boomer households have not accumulated enough savings to maintain their lifestyles. This will have a ripple effect on the economy as boomers work and spend less (Farrel et al. 2008).

Just as some observers are concerned about the possibility of Medicare being overburdened, Social Security is considered to be at risk. Social Security is a government-run retirement program funded primarily through payroll taxes. With enough people paying into the program, there should be enough money for retirees to take out. But with the aging boomer cohort starting to receive Social Security benefits and fewer workers paying into the Social Security trust fund, economists warn that the system will collapse by the year 2037. A similar warning came in the 1980s; in response to recommendations from the Greenspan Commission, the retirement age (the age at which people could start receiving Social Security benefits) was raised from sixty-two to sixty-seven and the payroll tax was increased. A similar hike in retirement age, perhaps to seventy, is a possible solution to the current threat to Social Security (Reuteman 2010).