Chapter 13

The Global Dynamics of Populations: Demographic Trends

Micro-Macro Connection


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

In 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 parent.

Effects on Cultural Values

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: Academic Press.

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. Journal of Family Issues, 4, 439-454.

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.