Clichés are trite and overused phrases that have an annoying tendency to be true. Take for example “silver tsunami” and “graying of America.” These have become go-to phrases in just about all baby boomer news reports and speeches. I’m guilty of sliding these worn sayings into a few columns and community presentations myself.
But numbers don’t lie and a cliché or two might be appropriate when it comes to aging. The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that about 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day. That adds up to 83.7 million seniors by 2050, almost double in size of today’s senior population.
The culprits are the parents of the baby-boom generation. Once World War II ended, the birthrate skyrocketed through the 1950s into the early 1960s. But it was more than just babies being born; it was the birth of a generation that literally and figuratively has never stopped dancing to the beat of its own drum (another cliché, I know).
Think about it for a second. You have parents shaped by the Great Depression, Nazis and Fascists, the novelty of movies with sound, segregation and World War II. The influences on their kids were the Cold War and nuclear annihilation, television, a growing civil rights movement, sex, drugs and rock and roll, and the Vietnam War.
Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. Add 60 years to those dates and you begin to see what is happening demographically. Like Peter Pan, boomers have never really wanted to grow up. But they have. Mick Jagger is a great-grandfather and Paul McCartney turned 72 last month.
Here are some interesting findings from the U.S. Census about today’s seniors:
• $34,000 is the median income for people 65 and older; almost 10 percent live in poverty.
• 83 percent completed high school; 25 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
• 62 percent have a computer in their house.
• 4.3 million Americans over 65 work full-time, year-round jobs.
• 72 percent cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential election.
• Almost 54,000 are 100 years old and older; eight of 10 centenarians are women.
• North Dakota has more centenarians per capita than any other state in the country with more than three per 10,000 people.
Where do you fall on the list? As boomers, do we risk going from Peter Pan to Peter Panhandler? For our nation’s “aging” cloud to have a silver lining, pardon another cliché, we need a plan that recognizes that our senior population is dramatically increasing and will continue to do so for 40 years. Compounding this challenge is that many seniors will not have adequate income to meet their basic needs.
Basic, regional and national services — Social Security, housing, health care, transportation — will be stretched to the breaking point, as will our tax dollars. By and large, boomers have had fewer children than their parents’ generation.
This means fewer family caregivers as they age. It also means fewer people (and fewer tax dollars) will be available to pay for their needs. There will be more reliance on the government and both for-profit and nonprofit organizations to fill the gap.
Demand for services will span the entire socio-economic scale. For savvy entrepreneurs, this represents an economic opportunity. For savvy nonprofit leaders, it is an opportunity to develop cost-effective services that solve problems, thereby creating societal impact, which will ultimately save tax dollars.
Leadership is needed. Many elected officials talk a good generic game when it comes to seniors. But when was the last time you heard a leading Republican or Democrat in Washington talk in anything other than sound bites about solutions for a demographic challenge that we know, for sure, exists? Compare and contrast to how much chatter you’ve already heard about the 2016 presidential election.
It is time for our leaders and the media to stop their narrow-minded focus on the next news cycle or next election. We need to create a systemic plan that builds the infrastructure to handle the increased number of seniors, without bankrupting future generations. Of course, one final cliché: Actions speak louder than words.