“Granny pods,” “silver tsunami,” the “graying of America:” these metaphors typify the current NPR obsession with what public radio apparently sees as the coming horde of “Baby Boomers.” For instance, Jennifer Ludden’s current series focuses on technology and programs for keeping dependent, frail, and elderly folks in their homes. This is an issue with which I don’t have a problem per se. I am all for improving the quality of life for the “frail elderly.”
The problem, as I see it, is the repetitious presentation of the growing elderly population as a problem rather than as positive facet of U.S. culture. When Linda Wertheimer introduces Jennifer Ludden’s segment on needy, decrepit elderly parents (and their burden on their children) with terms like “graying of America,” and “silver tsunami,” the narrative becomes: “We will have all of these old people that we will need to babysit – “oy vey” what to do?”
Here is a quote from a professional caregiver on Ms Ludden’s segment this morning: “At the same time that we have this huge population of aging folks, we have a shrinking population of caregivers, of younger people able to provide the care that these older people are going to need.” Because this professional person works for a company that provides electronic monitoring of elderly persons, she alarmingly proclaimed that her technology will save the day. She said, “If we don’t find other ways to do that, then we are really going to be in big trouble in the future.”
Well, Ms Taylor – that’s her name – is just plain wrong about the “shrinking population of caregivers.” Every segment of the U.S. population is growing rather rapidly and will continue to grow rapidly. The child population surpassed the 70 million mark (the peak of the “Baby Boom” population in 1964) in 1996 and has risen to 75 million. This population will continue to grow rapidly and reach 101 million by 2050.
Furthermore, the 18 to 65 population reached 190 million by 2010 and will grow to 249 million by 2050. No doubt, the 65+ population will grow from the current 40 million to 88 million by 2050. As a proportion of the total population, the 65+ demographic group will shift from 13% to 20% of the total population. Is this a big problem for an advanced, industrialized society with a GDP of $13 trillion?
Demographic characteristics and trends presented above are not disputed by demographers in general – I have taken them from the U.S. Census Bureau. Nevertheless, my research suggests that most everyone in the U.S. has a distorted view of the size of age categories. The media is helping spread this distortion.
A big portion of the elderly 20% will be capable of making positive contributions to society. Most elderly Americans are independent and do not need long term care and assisted daily living. However, if we stereotype and infantilize the elderly, public policy will be misguided and counterproductive. The problem, in my mind, isn’t that we will have too many old people but rather the problem is too many myths and misperceptions about older Americans.