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US, Asia, Europe face aging populations

By BELINDA ROBINSON in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-08 11:51

The United States, Asian and European countries must prepare for the needs of their aging populations, as there will be 2.1 billion people age 60 and older globally by 2050, the World Health Organization said.

More than 82 million Americans will be 65 and older in 26 years, according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB). Today, there are 58 million in that category.

More Americans are turning 65 this year than at any other time in history — about 4.1 million people, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

“The US population is getting older, but that's something that we share with the rest [of the world],” Professor Richard Alba, an American sociologist, and a distinguished professor emeritus at the City University of New York and in the Sociology Department at the State University of New York-Albany told China Daily.

“I think we need to be very concerned about inadequacy of the funding for the care of elderly people because it's going to be a huge financial burden,” he added.

In China , more than 280 million people were 60 years old in 2022, and in Japan — the country with the highest proportion of elderly people in the world — 1 in 10 are 80, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications said.

Among European Union members, around 21.1 percent of the population was 65 and older in 2022. In the UK, a non-EU member, 11 million people are over 65.

The changes among populations with the highest gross domestic product will present unique challenges, say sociologists.

They will include an increased need for adequate healthcare for seniors, housing and preparation by businesses to fill the void left by large-scale retirements.

Most Americans retire after age 64, but the number of employees 55 and older who left their jobs in the past few years rose by 3.5 million, compared with a million a year in the previous decade, the Pew Research Center found.

Human Resources managers warn that the loss of baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, could create a “brain drain''.

“The aging of the population means that the ratio of old people to young people who are in the labor force is going to be worsening,'' Alba said.

Yet some countries are eager to use the know-how of older workers.

In China, Zhang Shixin, deputy secretary-general of the National Development and Reform Commission, recently told a news conference that the development of the “silver economy” could drive development.

In Japan, the government has been encouraging seniors to re-enter the workforce for the past decade, and now there are 9.12 million elderly workers.

In the US, approximately 40 percent of adults 65 to 69 will be working by 2030, a 33 percent increase over 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found.

For older people, health is wealth.

But the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic from 2020 was attributed to the deaths of more than 3 million people, including many seniors.

Between 2019 and 2021, US life expectancy from birth fell by 2.4 years.

In 2021, there was a record number of suicides in the US; white males age 75 and older had the highest suicide rate, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. Drug overdoses, heart disease, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis were also leading causes of death.

Other prominent health concerns for American seniors over 65 are that 47 percent have arthritis, 25 percent have cancer, 20 percent have diabetes, and 28 percent have cognitive issues, according to a 2023 report from the Administration on Aging.

More than 6 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, which is expected to double by 2050 to 13 million. In China, 9.83 million have the disease.

In the UK, the National Healthcare System serves all healthcare needs for free, regardless of age.

In the US, Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people 65 or older, is crucial. Last year, Social Security and Medicare expenditures were 9.1 percent of GDP. But this will rise to 11.5 percent by 2035 as more people age, according to PRB.

“Compared to Europe, America has some handicaps in this respect because we don't have a national healthcare system. Our national healthcare is a patchwork of private and public agencies of very different insurance systems, and it costs a great deal of money, far more per capita than is true in Europe,'' Alba said.

“That certainly creates some real challenges in the political domain on the healthcare of older Americans and also with the financial support of older Americans through Social Security and or pension systems.”

Adequate housing is another crucial aspect for an aging population. The baby boomer generation owns the largest amount of real estate in the US at 44 percent, but not all boomers are financially secure.

Approximately 16.5 percent of the 1.45 million US homeless population in 2019 were boomers, according to The Washington Post.

Lisa Glow, CEO of Arizona's largest homeless center, the Central Arizona Shelter Services, told China Daily: “There is a severe lack of housing for them, and we must turn this around to address the silver tsunami of the homeless.” 

The number of older residents increased in every US state between 2000 and 2020. Maine has the highest number of seniors on average, followed by Puerto Rico, New Hampshire, Vermont, West Virginia and Florida.

In another change in demographics, seniors will be more racially diverse than ever. Those who identify as non-Hispanic white will decline from 75 percent to 60 percent between 2022 and 2050, PRB found.

“There have been significant shifts in the racial/ethnic composition of the US population since 1980,” Professor Rogelio Saenz, a sociologist and demographer in the Demography Department at the University of Texas at San Antonio and senior fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, told China Daily.

“The shift is being driven largely by differences across groups in their age structure,” he said.

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