The Global Dynamics of Populations: Demographic Trends
Graying of America
As the age
structure of the United States shifts, toward a population with more older people and a
higher average age, we can expect changes in family relations as well as in general
cultural values regarding the elderly.
Effects on Family
The growth of the elderly
population will have an enormous impact on the American family. In the distant past it was
quite rare for a child to know, let alone grow up with, his or her grandparents. It made
sense to focus on the nuclear family. However, today over half of all people over 65 have
great-grandchildren.1 With many families today having
four or even five generations alive at the same time, it becomes increasingly difficult to
conceptualize the family simply in terms of parents and children.
One important familial
consequence of increasing longevity is prolonged marriage. When life expectancy was lower,
the average marriage ended with the death of one of the spouses after only 20 or so years
of marriage. At the turn of the century, more than half of all marriages were ended by the
death of one spouse before the last child had left home.2
Today, however, the average couple could live 30 years or more after the last child has
left home. It's estimated that, apart from divorce, one out of every five married couples
will celebrate their 50th anniversary.3
a graying society, married couples have more time to compile extensive
common experiences and share broad historical changes, but they
also have more time to get on each other's nerves.4
Divorce among older peoplea segment of the population typically
assumed to be beyond the reach of national trends in divorcehas
more than doubled since 1960.5
Between 1980 and 1994, the number of divorced individuals over the
age of 65 increased from 3.5 million to 5.6 million.6
Now, in a sense, people are "outliving" their marriages.
Increased longevity also
extends the amount of time parents spend with their children. It will not be uncommon in
the near future for a significant number of parents and children to spend 60 years
together, of which only 18 are in the traditional parent-child relationship.7 A government study found that one or both parents are still
alive for 44% of people between the ages of 58 and 66.8
Certainly such longevity
increases the number of important experiences that parents and children can share.
However, it also increases the financial and emotional burdens on the children when they
reach adulthood, resulting in role conflict. The likelihood that one's parents will live
well into their 80s means that, for many people, their role as someone's child and the
accompanying responsibilities will long overlap their roles as someone's spouse and
Care of the growing
numbers of the very old will be one of the country's most urgent social issues over the
next several decades. It is further complicated by the low cultural value traditionally
placed on the elderly in this society. For many of us, the elderly represent precisely
what we spend a significant portion of our lives trying to deny: our own mortality. Old
people symbolize disease, disability, and death.9 As a
result, they are one of the most excluded age groups in American society today.
Elderly people are likely
to experience prejudice, discrimination, and residential segregation simply because they
are old. Common stereotypes about the elderlythat they're sick, slow-witted, senile, mean,
depressed, and drive too slowlyreinforce the public perception that they are socially
worthless.10 As with other forms of prejudice, these
perceptions are usually translated into actionthat is, discrimination.
The Age Discrimination
Employment Act of 1967 prohibits using age to make decisions regarding hiring, firing,
wages, or other privileges and conditions of employment. Clearly, however, age
discrimination in employment practices still exists. Mandatory retirement policies in some
businesses operate on the assumption that all people experience a decrease in mental and
physical capabilities when they reach a certain age.
As long as the elderly are
perceived to be rigid, unhealthy, unhappy, and unemployable, discriminatory treatment will
continue. It will also be difficult to convince younger people that tax dollars ought to
be spent on supporting the elderly as long as such stereotypes persist.
1Baca-Zinn, M., & Eitzen, D. S. 1993. Diversity
in families. New York: HarperCollins.
2Kart, C. S. 1990. The realities of aging.
Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
3Glick, P. C., & Norton, A. J. 1977.
"Marrying, divorcing, and living together in the U.S. today." Population
Bulletin, 32. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.
4Preston, S. H. 1976. Mortality patterns in
national population: With special references to recorded causes of death. New York:
5Uhlenberg, P., & Myers, M. A. 1981.
"Divorce and the elderly." The Gerontologist, 21, 276-282.
6United States Bureau of the Census. 1995. Statistical
abstract of the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
7Riley, M. W. 1983. "The family in an
aging society: A matrix of latent relationships.Ó Journal of Family Issues, 4,
8Kolata, G. 1993. "Strong family aid to
elderly is found." New York Times, May 3.
9Butler, R. 1975. Why survive? Being old in
America. New York: Harper & Row.
10Neugarten, B. L. 1980. "Grow old along
with me! The best is yet to be." In B. Hess (Ed.), Growing old in America. New
Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.
David Newman and Rebecca Smith.
(Created October 7, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.