Our cultural and structural disregard for older populations “is almost the last prejudice we’re allowed to have,” says Kathryn Lawler, the director of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Area Agency on Aging. Which is deeply ironic: Not only is aging–if one is blessed with a long life and good health–one of the few truly universal experiences, it is something that is becoming more and more pervasive. By 2050, the global population of people aged 60 and older will rise to 2 billion, up from 900 million in 2015. Every day in the United States, 10,000 people turn 65. Between 1990 and 2013, global life expectancy rose by around six years, from 65.3 to 71.5 (removing accidental death from fatal crashes or overdoses raises these estimates by around a year). For people born today, the likelihood that they will live to triple digits is strong: A child born in 2011 has a one-in-three chance of living to her 100th birthday.
These facts invite a range of concerns, from what aging people will do with a prospective extra three decades of leisure given that the retirement age is still typically 65, to how social security could and should change in response: When the retirement security was introduced in 1935, the average life expectancy was just around 62, lower than the retirement age, which, even then, was still 65. The proportion of adults collecting social security was significantly lower when the benefit was introduced, and they would live, on average, for fewer years after stopping work. Now, that’s not the case, and the safety net is stretched to snapping. Among the middle age and younger populations, anxiety about caregiving responsibilities is growing.
In many ways, aging is a personal concern, but coping with this demographic shift will not come down to individual effort. Rather, it’s going to take a comprehensive approach–on the part of cities, communities, and companies–to make room for a population that has much to offer, and that we all, someday, will be a part of.