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The Baby Boomers of Today

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1837
  • Category: Ageism

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In today’s emerging ‘aging society” in which those over age 60 will soon outnumber those under 15, there remains substantial uncertainty about what life will be like for the elderly and, perhaps more importantly, for the middle-aged and younger generations that will follow in the footsteps of today’s oldest Americans.

The aging of our nation began early in the twentieth century as advances in public health led to rapid reductions in infant, child, and maternal mortality. At that time, infectious diseases were the leading causes of death, as had been the case throughout human history. Because the risk of death was always high for younger ages, only a relatively small segment of every birth cohort prior to the 20th century had an opportunity to live to older ages. This characteristic pattern of mortality and survival, combined with high birth rates, produced an age distribution for America that took the shape of a pyramid-there were more younger people, situated at the bottom of the pyramid, than older people, situated at the top of the pyramid. In the early 20th century, as young people lived longer and death rates declined further at the middle and older ages in the second half of the century, life expectancy at birth rose rapidly-by more than 30 years. The result is that death has been permanently shifted from a phenomenon among the young to one of the old. This critical component of the ongoing process of aging in America will likely remain an enduring part of our demographic destiny long after the baby boomers pass on.

Although, the baby boomers, who can first be detected at the base of the age pyramid in 1950 and by the year 2000 dominate the middle part of the age structure, are obviously important. When they were under age 65, their numbers postponed the emergence of an aging society despite increases in life expectancy, and as they cross into ‘old age’ their vast numbers are accelerating it. Currently more than 11 percent, or more than 20 million Americans are over 65 years of age and during the coming century the proportion may reach one person in five, or 20% of the population (Neugarten, 1964). This projection, made several years ago, has been verified by 1980 and 2016 census data and projections (United States Bureau of the Census 1980, 2016 and article 27)

Distinguishing facts from myths about the elderly 1, 28, 29

Myth #1: Aging in America is a temporary phenomenon caused by the baby boom.

The number of people age 65 and older in United States on July 1, 2015 was 47.8 million which accounted for 14.9 percent of the total population and today it has surpassed 50 million. The dramatic increase in life expectancy across the globe is one of the greatest cultural and scientific advances and yet poses several challenges and potential conflicts that may hamper the overall well-being of the elderly. Identifying facts and challenging orthodox myths are critical as myths like aging in America is temporary due to baby boom are responsible for limiting infrastructure that can be utilized to unleash the productivity inherent in a health elderly population. [1]

The aging world won’t disappear once the baby boomers have passed on. We are well on our way toward a fundamentally new, permanent, and older age structure in our society. Yes the baby boom has contributed to the aging of American society, but so have rapid increases in life expectancy and reductions in birth rates. Thus policies and infrastructure must be designed with keeping these facts in check.

Myth #2: Physical and mental capacity inevitably decline with biological aging.

Myths like physical and mental capacity almost certainly decline with biological aging not only make the elderly weak but also causes intergenerational differences. Being old does not necessarily entail being frail. While normal human aging does involve progressively worse organ function compared to the peak in early adulthood, the impact of these physiological changes on the capacity of individuals to function in society is quite modest. The exaggeration of the elderly’s diminished function is due in part to archaic views that overlook the fact that people are becoming disabled later and later in their lives. Thus, not only are people living longer, but also they are healthier and are disabled for fewer years of their lives than older people decades ago. This phenomenon of progressively pushing disability later and later in life is referred to as ‘compression of morbidity.’ (XYZ) As a result, active life span is increasing faster than total life span. The health and functional status of the elderly has been improving steadily since the early 1980s, much of it because of improvements in medical care. A landmark study published in 1994, and since confirmed by other research, found the number of elders unable to perform daily tasks decreased by 3 .6 percentage points from 1982 to 1994 (from 24.9 percent to 21 .3 percent) (XYZ) . As a result, there were 1.2 million fewer disabled elders in 1994. Interestingly, there is evidence from the same time period suggesting disability has increased among those younger than 65, thanks to substantial increases in rates of asthma, obesity, and diabetes. Very recent analyses show an increase in the need for personal assistance, such as help with bathing, dressing, or other basic activities of daily living among 59 year olds. The trend, therefore, is toward a more active and healthier older population, and a less-healthy younger and middle-aged population, which includes the early baby-boomers. Clearly, we are no longer a society with a functionally impaired older generation alongside a fit, active, younger population.

Another frame of reference for assessing the function of older people relates not to comparing them to young adults, focusing on how many health problems they have, or how they score on an individual test, but instead looking at their overall capacity to function. From this perspective it is clear that many people successfully adapt in ways that allow them to lead full, productive lives into their oldest ages. Such adaptations build on the fact that important abilities, such as perspective, experience, social values, emotional regulation, and wisdom, may all increase with age.

When it comes to functional capacity, it may be that factors other than age are driving the changes we are seeing. Some of the most important determinants of diminished capacity cognitive and functional decline are more closely related to socioeconomic factors including race, ethnicity, and educational attainment, than to age. As we can see below, education in particular plays a prominent role in determining quality of life at older ages. This finding mirrors the role education plays in other social contexts. The economic returns from education in the labor market and the health benefits associated with additional years of schooling have both expanded sharply over time.

Myth #3: Aging mainly impacts the elderly.

This statement appears self-evident making it one of the most pernicious myths. The facts are that while population ‘aging’ is driving our demographic transition, from a policy perspective the elderly are often not the most important group from the point of view of either the risks they face going forward or the impact they will feel as changes are made to adapt to our society’s aging. For example, the young may lose support for education as expenditures for old-age entitlements grow, as has been the experience in some European countries. Or, perhaps the middle­ aged will be strained by their responsibility to provide goods and services for a rapidly growing elderly population.

As we move ahead, the most productive strategy is not to focus on just one generation, such as the elderly, but to consider the entire society, and the interactions of the generations it includes. Only in this broader context, can we consider the essential dynamics of the overall population and identify the key opportunities for meaningful change.

Attitude of children and younger adults 1, may be 3, 22, 27

Ageism, a negative attitude toward older persons, a fear of growing old, is an integral part of U.S. culture today (Butler, 1975). Attitudes of children and adults toward older persons have varied across cultures with time. In cultures where few reached old age, where older persons owned the land or the means of production, acted as religious or political figures, and were the bearers of knowledge, they were respected and powerful despite senescence. In industrialized societies, where many persons attain old age, attitudes toward older persons have tended to be more negative (Barrow, 1979). In the words of Katz (1978) Kinship ties, maintenance of age-related traditions, respect of knowledge and wisdom of the aged have all been associated with high status for the elderly and positive feelings about growing old. However, under modern conditions of rapid increases in the relative and absolute numbers of the aged, and a general decline in extended kinship systems, it is not surprising to find a predominant negative perception about the prospects of growing old regardless of culture.

Gruman ( 1978) reported that the roots of ageism in our culture can be traced to the close of the frontier at the beginning of this century. Goals shifted to a strong aggressive nation conquering weaknesses at home and new territories abroad. Immigration quotas were established that limited the entry of older persons into the United States. Early research on older persons concentrated on those living on poor farms and in mental hospitals (i.e., the impaired elderly). This increased the negative attitudes in a society already oriented toward youth and productivity.

Most people today accept the fact that ageism is present in our culture (Barrow & Smith, 1979). Culture is a dynamic and changing reality, however. The Protestant work ethic and the value of productivity and youth are no longer unquestionable absolutes. Are ageist attitudes changing, and where might such changes be noticed? No one really knows when attitudes develop; however, it appears that values and attitudes developed early in life are those that are more lasting over time. Early learning appears to color one’s perception of all that is learned subsequently (Henderson, Morris, & Fitz-Gibbon, I978).

Very little data have been gathered and reported in the literature concerning children’s attitudes toward older per­ sons. A review of existing research revealed a lack of research studies on children (below adolescent age) in terms of attitudes held toward age and the aging. Robertson (1976) studied children’s perceptions of grandparents as old-fashioned and out of touch. The aged were regarded as significant sources of influence on their grand­ children’s lives. He also found that the young adults perceived definite responsibilities for their grandparent’s welfare, care, and psychophysiological well-being. Challenging these myths and educating children and younger adults at an early age helps moulds caregiving and other positive outlook towards the elderly of the society. This in turn shows a more liberal attitude of elderly towards the ever evolving socio-political issues of the society. 

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