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Aging into the 21st Century


American society has been aging rather steadily from its beginning if we judge on the basis of the usual measures (i.e., the rise in the median age of the population and the rise in the percent of the population aged 65 years and over). The rate of aging has varied over the decades, primarily as a result of fluctuations in the rate of decline in the birth rate; second, as a result of fluctuations in the rates and patterns of decline in age-specific death rates; and third, as a result of shifts in the volume and age pattern of net immigration. Although this trend has been relatively regular up to now, for the first time in our history the United States population is not aging (that is, the proportion of persons 65 years and over is not rising), but it is expected to resume aging after the year 2000.

Many areas of public life will be greatly affected by the aging of the baby-boom cohorts. The baby-boom cohorts, the very large numbers of children born between 1946 and 1964, begin to turn age 60 about 2006 and age 65 about 2011. The current concern about the aging of our population arises from three new conditions, linked closely to one another. The first condition is that the proportion of elderly in the total population is now substantial (13 percent). The second is that the number of elderly and the rate of aging are expected soon to increase steeply, with implications for a vast increase in the numbers of persons requiring special services (health, recreation, housing, nutrition, and the like); participating in various entitlement programs; and requiring formal and informal care. The third is a recognition of the possible implications of an aging society for the whole range of our social institutions, from education and family to business and government.

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