Today, people over 65 make up 17%, 1 in 6 of Americans, and that percentage is expected to grow to 46% by 2032. The fastest growing group consists of people over 85.
May is Older Americans Month. So who are we?
First of all, we are numerous. Today, people over 65 make up 17%, 1 in 6 of Americans, and that percentage is expected to grow to 46% by 2032. The fastest growing group consists of people over 85.
We mostly live at home. Even at 95 years and older, the majority of us are still in single family dwellings.
Unlike older adults around the world, we rarely live in an extended family. In fact, in the United States, 27% of adults ages 60 and older live alone.
The aging population is often depicted as an unfolding crisis — the “Silver Tsunami,” the “Next Ticking Time Bomb,” etc. We are pictured as a homogenous group, living in assisted living or nursing home facilities, not working and coming out to dine or shop during the day when everyone else is working. We are seen as needy because we will depend on the government or the generosity of others to survive. And the narrative is that we like it that way!
In fact, we are a diverse group, physically, cognitively and financially. Many of us still work — 26% of people ages 65-74 and older and 8.9% of 75-year-olds. We are out taking classes, playing pickleball and travelling.
Retirement has evolved over the centuries
Some of the story is, of course, grounded in fact. We do get older and eventually decline physically. Some of us get dementia.
But the story of retirement into obsolescence is a new narrative that did not exist 150 years ago.
In the 19th century, medicine thought that we had a certain amount of “vital force” that we expended until we ran out of it and died. The old and the poor were considered undeserving and were put in “the poorhouse.”
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order that classified Union veterans as half-disabled at 62, two-thirds disabled at 65, and fully disabled at 70. Union veterans retired and Confederate ones kept on working.
In the 1920s and even more in the 1930s many people lost their jobs or were laid off. There was a belief that older people were occupying jobs that younger people needed.
Finally, in 1935, the Social Security Act was passed. Suddenly there was a new narrative. Retirement wasn’t the result of losing your job, it was something that everyone longed for and looked forward to.
At the time that the Act was passed and solidified 65 as the age of retirement, life expectancy at birth was 59.3 for men and 63.3 for women.
Today, life expectancy at birth is 73 for men and 79 for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Yes, we have had recent declines caused by the pandemic and gun violence, but there is still a lot to celebrate.
So, let’s enjoy Older Americans Month with all these realities in mind. We may work and we may not. Many of us are out there living lives of gusto, creativity and meaning. Let’s all go for it.
Barbara Moss is founder of Elder Law of Nashville PLC.