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Aging boom shakes, reshapes Southern California – Redlands Daily Facts

More gray and balding heads? More daily medications? A collective hankering for comfortable shoes?

We’re about to have it all.

We’re going to have more Social Security and Medicare payouts; more senior centers, more demand for hospital rooms and dementia experts. More families soon will be living with three and even four generations under the same roof.

There will be more wisdom, too, and more need.

In short, America and Southern California in particular are about to include more older people, a lot more.

A long-predicted demographic shift, in which older people are growing in numbers and in clout, is starting to reach high gear. Over the next decade, the number of Americans aged 65 or older will jump by about a third, according to census projections. By 2034, the 65-and-older crowd will outnumber everybody younger than 18. And, by 2060, roughly 1 in 4 Americans will be at least what is (for now) retirement age.

It’s not just about us, either. The aging boom is playing out in most advanced economies. And in many of those places, particularly in Asia and much of western Europe, it’s happening earlier and faster than it is here.

But for a lot of reasons – culture, money, ageism – the coming population shift is a potential game-changer for Southern California. The community that includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties has long been associated with youth culture, but it’s now starting to turn old as quickly as nearly any region on the planet.

Still, the aging boom is about more than image.

Just as climate change is rewiring the weather and environment, our new demographics could reshape pretty much everything else. Economics and labor, tax rates, health care, immigration, politics; all could change dramatically as our retiree-age population expands and our tax-paying, working-age population shrinks. The difference is that the aging boom might be arriving (slightly) faster.

“How big a deal is it? Big enough that no politician wants to tackle it,” said Dowell Myers, a demographer and professor at USC who has written extensively about how America’s aging population might affect immigration, social spending and housing, among other topics.

“Politicians want to talk about problems they have solutions for.”

But the aging boom also is not, in every sense, a problem. It’s driven by a trend – people living longer, healthier lives – that’s unambiguously positive. What’s more, many experts (Myers included) foresee a lot of potential benefits, particularly if people of different ages, with different needs, can figure out how to help and listen to each other even as they compete for public resources.

“As this keeps going, people will have to treat each other better,” Myers said. “Older people will have to give back to younger people. And vice versa. That’s the solution.”

Two trends, few answers

The coming age boom is a near certainty because of two demographic-related facts.

First, we’re getting better at staving off death.

Though Americans suffered an eye-popping 2.26-year drop in life expectancy (from 78.86 years to 76.6 years) between 2019 and 2021, experts say that’s a short-term number that reflects the fact that about a million Americans died during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The long-term age trend is more upbeat, with data showing we’re living longer than ever. Americans who make it to their 60th birthday can expect to live, on average, another 23-plus years. And by 2060, the Census Bureau projects that the average U.S. lifespan will be 85.6 years.

The second fact is about babies: We’re having fewer of them.

The U.S. fertility rate has fallen by about 13% since 2007 and a full rebound isn’t expected anytime soon. By 2030, according to census forecasts, immigration, not domestic births, will be the only thing preventing our population from declining.

Those trends are combining to create a demographic unicorn. Because human biology and immigration (along with deadly events like wars and pandemics and disasters) shape the size and age of populations, and because older people die more frequently than younger people, virtually every population in human history has skewed younger. So, the age upsidedownism we’re about to experience is unique, and it raises a host of tough-to-answer questions:

• As the population math gets tight for Social Security and Medicare (today, there are about 3.5 workers for every retiree; by 2050 it’ll drop to 2.5 workers for every retiree) how will those programs fare?

• What happens to health care when there are 13 million Americans with Alzheimer’s (projected for 2050) or 22 million with macular degeneration (also slated to hit in 2050) or 60.6 million with diabetes (projected for 2060)?

• And as America sees a boom in the oldest of the old (between now and 2050, the number of Americans who are 85 or older will nearly triple, to about 18.6 million), how will expensive housing markets like Southern California find room for everybody?

These and many other long-standing questions get a new twist in a world that’s aging as fast as ours.

And, for a lot of people, “new” sounds ominous.

“It’ll all be used up,” said Kelly Schmidt, 26, an aspiring sports agent who lives in Redondo Beach.

“Social money. Health money. Everything. By the time my kids are ready to go to school, or when I get to retirement or whatever, there’s not going to be anything left. … The Boomers will take it all.”

But others take a different view. The rise of older people, they argue, will be an opportunity to trade conflict for cooperation.

“Maybe if everybody has to slow down and help each other, it might be a really good thing,” said Alicia Simmons, a 28-year-old marketing executive.

Simmons, who lives in Tustin, grew up near Salt Lake City in a neighborhood she shared with her grandparents. She watched her mother’s parents grow old, shifting from full-time workers, to active retirees, to still-active-but-somewhat-slower retirees, now in their 80s, who occasionally seek assistance (“mostly about their cell phones,” she said, laughing) from their adult children and grandchildren.

“It’s natural for people to care for each other as we age. It’s weird that so many (families) live apart from each other,” she said.

“I can’t imagine how my life would be different if I didn’t know my grandparents and see them all the time.”

None of this is unexpected. The rise of older people in advanced economies has been projected for years. The Census Bureau, the state of California and others have small armies of demographers tracking what is happening, age-wise, and how it will affect everybody.

But ask for specifics – how the aging boom might harm or help our economy and society – and talk often turns into a shrug.

“If you confront people about what’s going to happen as our population ages, you don’t get much. There aren’t a lot of answers, there are still mostly just questions,” said Myers, the USC demographer.

“The can has been kicked down the road for a long time,” he added. “But now the issue is becoming unavoidable.”

Everywhere, but especially here

At the start of 2020, just before the pandemic, Southern California’s youth wasn’t just figurative; it was literal. The combined median age of people living in the four-county region centered by Los Angeles was about 37.1 years, or nearly a year younger than the national median, which was about 38 years, according to state data.

No more. As of August, the local median age was about 38.5 years, a tick under the national median of 38.8 years. But by 2025, that number is projected to hit 39.5 years, or about six months older than the expected national median, which the census projects will hit 39.

Given we’re talking about a population of roughly 20 million people, and a usually slow-moving data point like median age, the velocity of the region’s aging spurt is “really, really fast,” said Walter Schwarm, who studies how changes in the population affect the economy for the California Dept. of Finance.

Schwarm said Southern California’s flip from young to old is partly a reflection of the ages of people who died during the pandemic (it wasn’t all in nursing homes), a pandemic-inspired slowdown in immigration (few people landed here during the pandemic) and the fact that people moving out of state tend to be younger than the people who are staying put.

Housing, in fact, will be a particularly tough issue for Southern California as the population gets old. Schwarm and others said a growing trend among retirees to “age in place” will turn an already tight housing market into something potentially untenable.

“No state grew faster than California, particularly Southern California, in the 1980s and ’90s,” Schwarm said. “To a certain extent, now, a large number of those people have settled in and aged in place in the region, and they don’t want to leave. And that has implications for everybody else.”

What’s more, the number of working-age people in the four counties – people ages 25 to 65 – will shrink. Younger Southern Californians who want to stay here as they start and advance in their careers often see an impenetrable housing market and search elsewhere.

Schwarm and others believe the aging boom will continue to be particularly pronounced in Southern California for at least a few decades.

Today, in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, young people (20-and-under, using state data) still barely outnumber the 65-plus crowd. But by 2060 that will be true only in San Bernardino County. In the other three counties, older people will vastly outnumber the local pools of younger people.

Overall, by 2060, nearly 5.5 million people living in the four-county region will be 65 or older, versus 3.6 million who will be 20 or younger. Though a few other places (Florida! Maine!) will be even older, the senior-to-kid ratio here will be twice as skewed toward older people as the national average.

“The image of Southern California has always been about youth,” Schwarm said. “But that’s ending, at least demographically.”

Pedestrians cross a street in Tokyo's Ginza district on July 17, 2022. Japan's median age is 48.4 years, and about 29% of its population is 65 or older. It has the oldest population in the world. (Photo by PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)
Pedestrians cross a street in Tokyo’s Ginza district on July 17, 2022. Japan’s median age is 48.4 years, and about 29% of its population is 65 or older. It has the oldest population in the world. (Photo by PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images)

Japan might show the way

How will that change us? For a peek at that future, demographic experts suggest looking around the world.

Age is already reshaping much of western Europe. Countries with the highest percentage of older people in the European Union (Italy, Finland, Greece, Portugal) recently have battled aging-related economic problems, with tighter labor markets, shrinking consumption and less entrepreneurship and innovation.

Also, while the aging boom is expected to slow population growth for the United States to a crawl, we aren’t expected to see our population actually decline. That won’t be true everywhere. A new United Nations report (which forecasts Earth’s population will reach 8 billion in November and that India will pass China as the world’s most populous country in 2023) projects that between now and 2050 at least 61 nations will see their populations decline by 1% or more.

(Another global population forecast, by demographers at the University of Washington, suggests world population will peak as early as 2042 and that by 2100 there will be fewer people on Earth than there are today.)

All of which raises the possibility of a future described in a report from the International Monetary Fund as “shrinkanomics” – how economies will respond when population is flat or falling.

As a test case, economists look at Japan.

For a lot of reasons (tight immigration policies; a small number of baby boomers; low birth rate) the aging boom hit Japan first, in the early 1990s. Today, the country is the oldest population on Earth. Its median age is 48.4 years, and about 29% of its population is 65 or older. By 2050, the median age will be 53 and 1 in 3 Japanese will be at least 65 years old.

In some ways, all of this aging hasn’t been easy. Japan’s economy, once one of the world’s most vibrant, has staggered. (The term “lost decade,” to describe Japan’s crummy economy in the 1990s, has been replaced by “lost decades” and, recently, “lost 30 years.”)  And family formation – critical to future growth – has slowed to a crawl (last year saw the fewest Japanese births in a century), in part, because some younger people feel they don’t make enough money to raise children.

Even the country’s consumer markets have been affected; adult diapers now outsell baby diapers in Japan.

But Japan also is a culture that respects age, and the country has met its aging boom with resilience and, in some cases, humor.

For example, employment shortages – a key hurdle for economies with lots of older people – have been offset, in part, by a flood of women and older people either joining or staying in the workforce. As of last year, about 46% of Japanese people 65 and older were still working, compared with about 18% of Americans of that age who still go to work.

Japan even has a small-but-growing number of sports celebrities, reality-show stars and social media influencers who are in their 90s and early 100s. One example: Kimiko Nichimoto, a 94-year-old photographer and great-great-grandmother, who has built a huge Instagram following by billing herself as “InstaGran.”

For at least some in Japan, age has not yet become a point of contention.

“(Aging) is not something we really think about as a problem,” said Momo Yasutake, 20, a Japanese exchange student who is studying global affairs at Cal State Channel Islands.

“Maybe it’s a problem with taxes, I guess. That’s something people talk about,” she added.

“But the idea that there are a lot of old people in our country isn’t something younger people really complain about.”

Culture war? Age war?

That might not be the way it plays out here.

The United States – and particularly Southern California – is unabashedly youth-centric. Though we’ve recently elected older people to top jobs in national politics (each of our past two presidents has been the oldest to take that office), that’s an exception, not the rule. In many other areas of life – popular entertainment, business, sports – youth often is celebrated.

And experts say our focus on youth sometimes plays out in bias against age.

“Age stereotypes in the United States have grown increasingly more negative over the last 200 years,” wrote Michigan State researcher William Chopik in one of two 2020 reports he helped lead that looked at how older people are treated around the world.

Chopik’s team administered tests on about 800,000 people to see how their views affected (and reflected) economic and cultural age biases in their countries. Their findings boil down to this: It’s easier to be old in some countries than it is in others.

Countries that Chopik’s team identified as “collectivist” leaning, meaning cultures that focus on group cohesion and harmony (which researchers said included Japan, China, Korea, India and Brazil, among others) generated less bias against older people. Older people in those countries stayed employed longer, were healthier and often enjoyed a respected role in families and society.

But countries identified as leaning toward “individualism” (which the researchers said included Germany, Ireland, Australia and the United States, among others) value personal productivity over social cohesion. In those countries, people tend to lose status as they age.

The reports found that anti-age biases can play out in different countries in big ways (more elder abuse, less spending for older people ), and in ways that seem trivial but matter in day-to-day life, such as pressure on older people to look and act younger.

“In ageist cultures … people do this by identifying with younger age groups, lying about their age and even saying that they feel quantitatively younger than they actually are,” Chopik wrote.

A cultural view on age can be reflected in a country’s legal system. China and France both have laws that require adult children to visit their elderly parents. In the United States, older workers are legally protected against ageism, but there is no legal effort to force family time.

We’re also not great at the softer skills. Less than 14% of Southern Californians surveyed in a 2017 study by researchers at Cal State Northridge said they believe we live in a society that respects older people.

To people who work with older people, locally, that sounds about right.

“I know, in this community, aging isn’t something people always embrace,” said Lisa Wright Jenkins, president of the Council on Aging in Orange County.

Will that change when more people, overall, are older?

“It’ll be interesting to see how this aging trend affects things around here,” Wright Jenkins said.

Next in the series: As Southern California ages up, where will we live?

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