Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity      September 2001 • Volume XXIV, Number 2


When there are billions of people over 60 around the world, social security, health care, and housing costs will skyrocket.
Are we prepared for

The Coming of Age

by Lauren J. Bryant

When the Census 2000 figures rolled out earlier this year, one thing was clear: America is aging enormously. As the baby boomers hit 50, 60, and beyond, they will radically change the meaning of aging. Witness the creation of the new AARP magazine whose title echoes The Who’s tune “My Generation” or the titles of recent popular books such as Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America.

Even so, population aging is hardly an American phenomenon. Consider these figures from the United Nations’ Population Division. By the year 2050:

Indiana University Professor Emeritus of Economics George Stolnitz calls global population aging "the foremost issue in the public welfare debate." Photo © 2001 Tyagan Miller.

George Stolnitz knows better than most what such numbers mean. For more than 50 years, Stolnitz, a professor emeritus of economics at IU Bloomington, has studied demographics. He’s analyzed the impacts of wars and technology. His work on mortality rates has led the way in the field. “This one,” he says, “beats everything.”

“This one” is global population aging, the rapidly expanding number of people around the world who are 60 or over. “When you consider the numbers of elderly people around the world,” Stolnitz says, “there are very, very few things that compete with the importance of global aging. I’ve seen numbers I can’t believe.”

The unbelievable numbers are growing especially rapidly in the less- and least-developed countries—even in Africa, life expectancy at birth is predicted to rise from 51.4 years now to 69.5 years by mid-century. As the dramatic pace of population aging and its absolute size accelerates, so too do the economic and social consequences. Since Stolnitz retired in 1990, he’s spent much of his time considering those consequences. For example:

In short, adequate housing, sustenance, and medical care for the aged are far from guaranteed.

“We have an enormously large and rapidly expanding pool of elderly people who are causing great changes in the demand for medical help and other kinds of support and assistance,” Stolnitz says. “The question is, where does that support come from?”

The answer is, in part, an active labor force, especially among populations with traditional social security systems in which workers pay for retiree benefits. As people age and fertility rates drop, however, there are likely to be fewer workers to support the elderly. In more developed regions, ratios of working-age to retired persons are expected to decline from five-to-one to two-to-one. In regions less developed, the decline may be from 12-to-one to four-to-one.

The supply of new workers will also decline. In developed regions, fertility is expected to decline to 1.5 children per woman in less than 10 years. Even in high-fertility countries, where fertility was 5.74 children per woman from 1995 to 2000, the number could drop to 2.51 children per woman by 2045–2050.

“Where are you going to get the workers?” Stolnitz asks. “More and more people to take care of with less and less resources—this entire dilemma is the most widespread and foremost issue in the public welfare debate.”

Besides a shortfall in the supply of workers, quality-of-life issues crop up too. Nearly all global population growth during the next several decades will be in urban areas. Although living close to needed services can benefit older people, moves to urban areas are not necessarily positive, Stolnitz observes, and other experts agree.

“The most pressing housing needs in the Third World are in the massive urban networks that have arisen around the globe,” says Phillip Stafford, adjunct associate professor in anthropology at IUB and director of Evergreen Institute on Elder Environments, an organization that has “the goal of creating good places to grow old,” as Stafford puts it. “Elders who have emigrated from rural areas find themselves growing old in cities that do not accommodate their needs,” he continues. “For example, health care may be provided, but transit systems needed to access care are inaccessible.”

Housing is a critical concern. Children may wish to take care of the elders who cared for them, but multigenerational households can be problematic. Living with grown children or other family members may mean an elder’s loss of autonomy and privacy as well as alienation from older-age peers.

“Despite our stereotypes about the culture of respect for elders in other places around the world,” says Stafford, “the reality of multigenerational living is difficult. Often it’s a necessity, not a choice.”

Stafford adds that what elders want is a “home,” not simply housing. “Home is a profound concept,” he says. “It implies a set of personal relationships and a material environment of support, comfort, and familiarity. In short, ‘home’ is not equivalent to housing, but ‘home’ can be created in a variety of types of housing. Public policy discussions about ‘housing for the elderly’ need to be framed with this in mind.”

Then there’s health. Many people live on their own into their “oldest old” years, but eventually, health complications naturally accelerate. “Increasing life expectancy is a positive thing,” Stolnitz emphasizes, “but what can one do, for instance, about an 80-year-old woman who has trouble with the activities of daily living along with meeting the expenses of Medicare and other prescriptions?”

Stolnitz’s assessment of the challenges ahead is somber. “There are enormous problems and imbalances,” he says. “For example, how do you allocate finite resources appropriately between support for the elderly and the young who need education? How are we going to meet such problems adequately?”

But his serious questions may inspire more active responses from researchers and policymakers in meeting the material needs of the old. Among the policy directions Stolnitz suggests:

The baby boomers—or “zoomers,” as a U.S. News & World Report cover story on retirement has called them—may be the demographic powerhouse that redefines aging, but in the end, Stolnitz says, responding to population aging comes down to meeting two underlying human needs: “What do the aging want in addition to material well-being? Companionship and attention.”

Stolnitz has both in his Bloomington home, where he lives with his wife and receives visits from his three daughters and six grandchildren. And zoomers take note: In his 80s, Stolnitz still works in his second-floor office, pondering what the numbers say about the future of aging in the 21st century.

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