The Graying of the United States and the World

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the graying of the United States, including the impact of aging baby boomers
  • Examine aging and elder care as a global issue

 The Graying of the United States

Demographically, the U.S. population over sixty-five years old increased from 3 million in 1900 to 33 million in 1994 (Hobbs 1994), 36.8 million in 2010, 47.8 million in 2015, and 49.2 million in 2018 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). This is a greater than tenfold increase in the elderly population, compared to a mere tripling of both the total population and of the population under sixty-five years old (Hobbs 1994). This increase has been called “the graying of America,” a term that describes the phenomenon of a larger and larger percentage of the population getting older and older.

Population pyramid showing U.S. total resident population in 2015. The population is from 0 to 15 million is labeled on the x-axis, and the age groups from 0-4 to 85+ are labeled on the y-axis. The graph is close to a column with a population of about 10 million for both male and female until age 65, when the top tapers showing a decrease in population with older age.
Figure 1. The population pyramid in the United States is beginning to look more like a column than a pyramid.

There are several reasons why the United States is graying so rapidly. One of these is life expectancy: the average number of years a person born today may expect to live. When we review Census Bureau statistics grouping the elderly by age, it is clear that in the United States, at least, we are living longer. In 2010, there were about 80,000 centenarians in the United States. According to the CDC, the number of centenarians in the United States in 2014 was 72,197. [1]. They make up one of the fastest-growing segments of the population (Boston University School of Medicine 2014).

People over ninety years of age now account for 4.7 percent of the older population, defined as age sixty-five or above; this percentage is expected to reach 10 percent by the year 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau 2011). As of 2018, about 15.2 percent of the U.S. population is age 65 or older.[2]

It is interesting to note that not all people in the United States age equally. Most glaring is the difference between men and women; as Figure 2 below shows, women have longer life expectancies than men. In 2010, there were ninety sixty-five-year-old men per one hundred sixty-five-year-old women. However, there were only eighty seventy-five-year-old men per one hundred seventy-five-year-old women, and only sixty eighty-five-year-old men per one hundred eighty-five-year-old women. Nevertheless, as the graph shows, the sex ratio actually increased over time, indicating that men are closing the gap between their life spans and those of women (U.S. Census Bureau 2010).

A line graph titled, "Sex Ratio by Age: 1990, 2000, and 2010". The x-axis is labeled by ages 65 to 100+, and the y-axis is labeled by the number of males 0 to 100 per 100 females. The graph depicts the narrowing percentage by which women outlive men, with each line forming a downward slope. At the age of 65, ratios of males to 100 females for all 3 years were between 80-90. By the age of 100, the ratios of all 3 years were between 20 and 30 males to 100 females.
Figure 2. This U.S. Census graph shows that women live significantly longer than men. However, over the past two decades, men have narrowed the percentage by which women outlive them. (Graph courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau)

Try It

Baby Boomers

Of particular interest to gerontologists today is the population of baby boomers, the unprecedentedly large cohort born between 1946 and 1964 and now reaching their 70s. Coming of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, the baby boom generation was the first group of children and teenagers with their own spending power and therefore their own marketing power (Macunovich 2000). As this group has aged, it has redefined, particularly through the mass media forms that emerged during their adulthood, what it means to be young, middle-aged, and now old. People in the boomer generation do not want to grow old the way their grandparents did. The result is a wide range of products designed to ward off the effects—or the signs—of aging, known as senescence. Previous generations of people over sixty-five were “old.” Baby boomers are in “later life” or “the third age” (Gilleard and Higgs 2007).

The baby boom generation is the cohort driving much of the dramatic increase in the over-sixty-five population. Figure 3 shows a comparison of the U.S. population by age and gender between 2000 and 2010. The biggest bulge in the pyramid (representing the largest population group) moves up the pyramid over the course of the decade; in 2000, the largest population group was age thirty-five to fifty-five. In 2010, that group was age forty-five to sixty-five, meaning the oldest baby boomers were just reaching the age at which the U.S. Census considers them elderly. In 2020, we can predict, the baby boom bulge will continue to rise up the pyramid, making the largest U.S. population group between sixty-five and eighty-five years old.

A population pyramid titled, "Population by Age and Sex: 2000 and 2010". The population in millions from 0 to 3 is labeled on the x-axis, and the age range from 0 up to 100+ is labeled on the y-axis. The graph shows that in 2000, the population stayed around 2 million for ages 0 to 50 and began to taper off from there, decreasing to almost 0 by the age of 100. In 2010, the population stayed at around 2 million until tapering off at the age of 64.
Figure 3. In this U.S. Census pyramid chart, the baby boom bulge was aged thirty-five to fifty-five in 2000. In 2010, they were aged forty-five to sixty-five. (Graph courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau).

This aging of the baby boom cohort has serious implications for our society. Healthcare is one of the areas most impacted by this trend. For years, hand-wringing has abounded about the additional burden the boomer cohort will place on Medicare, a government-funded program that provides healthcare services to people over sixty-five years old. And indeed, the Congressional Budget Office’s 2008 long-term outlook report shows that Medicare spending is expected to increase from 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 to 8 percent of GDP in 2030, and to 15 percent in 2080 (Congressional Budget Office 2008).

Certainly, as boomers age, they will put increasing burdens on the entire U.S. healthcare system. A study from 2008 indicates that medical schools are not producing enough medical professionals who specialize in treating geriatric patients (Gerontological Society of America 2008). However, other studies indicate that aging boomers will bring economic growth to the healthcare industries, particularly in areas like pharmaceutical manufacturing and home healthcare services (Bierman 2011). Further, some argue that many of our medical advances of the past few decades are a result of boomers’ health requirements. Unlike the elderly of previous generations, boomers do not expect that turning sixty-five means their active lives are over. They are not willing to abandon work or leisure activities, but they may need more medical support to keep living vigorous lives. This desire of a large group of over-sixty-five-year-olds wanting to continue with a high activity level is driving innovation in the medical industry (Shaw).

The economic impact of aging boomers is also an area of concern for many observers. Although the baby boom generation earned more than previous generations and enjoyed a higher standard of living, they also spent their money lavishly and did not adequately prepare for retirement. According to a 2008 report from the McKinsey Global Institute, approximately two-thirds of early boomer households have not accumulated enough savings to maintain their lifestyles. This will have a ripple effect on the economy as boomers work and spend less (Farrel et al. 2008).

Just as some observers are concerned about the possibility of Medicare being overburdened, Social Security is considered to be at risk. Social Security is a government-run retirement program funded primarily through payroll taxes. With enough people paying into the program, there should be enough money for retirees to take out. But with the aging boomer cohort starting to receive Social Security benefits and fewer workers paying into the Social Security trust fund, economists warn that the system will collapse by the year 2037. A similar warning came in the 1980s. In response to recommendations from the Greenspan Commission, the retirement age (the age at which people could start receiving Social Security benefits) was raised from sixty-two to sixty-seven and the payroll tax was increased. A similar hike in retirement age, perhaps to seventy, is a possible solution to the current threat to Social Security (Reuteman 2010).

Dig Deeper: Social Security

Watch this video from the National Academy of Social Insurance to learn about the counter-argument that Social Security will last well into the future because it was designed to account for an aging population. You can also visit the National Issues Forum to learn more about alternatives to social security.

Think It Over

  • Baby boomers have been called the “Me Generation.” Do you know any baby boomers? In what way do they exemplify their generation? Do you think that is an accurate description?

Try It

Aging around the World

A shirtless elderly man is shown manipulating a large tree branch while standing waist-deep in a river.
Figure 4. Cultural values and attitudes can shape people’s experience of aging. (Photo courtesy of Tom Coppen/flickr)

From 1950 to approximately 2010, the global population of individuals age sixty-five and older increased by a range of 5–7 percent (Lee 2009). This percentage is expected to increase and will have a critical impact on the dependency ratio: the number of nonproductive citizens (young, disabled, or elderly) to productive working citizens (Bartram and Roe 2005). One country that will soon face a serious aging crisis is China, which is on the cusp of an “aging boom”— a period when its elderly population will dramatically increase. The number of people above age sixty in China today is about 178 million, which amounts to 13.3 percent of its total population (Xuequan 2011). By 2050, nearly a third of the Chinese population will be age sixty or older, which will put a significant burden on the labor force and impacting China’s economic growth (Bannister, Bloom, and Rosenberg 2010).

As healthcare improves and life expectancy increases across the world, elder care will be an emerging issue. Wienclaw (2009) suggests that with fewer working-age citizens available to provide home care and long-term assisted care to the elderly, the costs of elder care will increase. The cost of putting a parent into professional assisted-living averages about $42,000 a year, and approximately $87,000 in a private room. If the elder family member stays home, he or she is typically cared for by a woman, who is typically “a middle aged mother with children or adult children living in their household. [3]

Worldwide, the expectation governing the amount and type of elder care varies from culture to culture. For example, in Asia the responsibility for elder care lies firmly on the family (Yap, Thang, and Traphagan 2005). This is different from the approach in most Western countries, where the elderly are considered independent and are expected to tend to their own care. It is not uncommon for family members to intervene only if the elderly relative requires assistance, often due to poor health. Even then, caring for the elderly is considered voluntary. In the United States, decisions to care for an elderly relative are often conditionally based on the promise of future returns, such as inheritance or, in some cases, the amount of support the elderly provided to the caregiver in the past (Hashimoto 1996).

These differences are based on cultural attitudes toward aging. In China, several studies have noted the attitude of filial piety (deference and respect to one’s parents and ancestors in all things) as fundamentally defining all other virtues (Hsu 1971; Hamilton 1990). Cultural attitudes in Japan prior to approximately 1986 supported the idea that the elderly deserve assistance (Ogawa and Retherford 1993). However, seismic shifts in major social institutions (like family and the economy) have created an increased demand for community and government care. For example, the increase in women working outside the home has made it more difficult to provide in-home care to aging parents, which leads to an increase in the need for government-supported institutions (Raikhola and Kuroki 2009).

In the United States, by contrast, many people view caring for the elderly as a burden. Even when there is a family member able and willing to provide for an elderly family member, 60 percent of family caregivers are employed outside the home and are unable to provide the needed support. At the same time, however, many middle-class families are unable to bear the financial burden of “outsourcing” professional healthcare, resulting in gaps in care (Bookman and Kimbrel 2011). It is important to note that even within the United States not all demographic groups treat aging the same way. While most people in the United States are reluctant to place their elderly members into out-of-home assisted care, demographically speaking, the groups least likely to do so are Latinos, African Americans, and Asians (Bookman and Kimbrel 2011).

Globally, the United States and other core nations are fairly well equipped to handle the demands of an exponentially increasing elderly population. However, peripheral and semi-peripheral nations face similar increases without comparable resources. Poverty among elders is a concern, especially among elderly women. The feminization of the aging poor, evident in peripheral nations, is directly due to the number of elderly women in those countries who are single, illiterate, and not a part of the labor force (Mujahid 2006).

In 2002, the Second World Assembly on Aging was held in Madrid, Spain, resulting in the Madrid Plan, an internationally coordinated effort to create comprehensive social policies to address the needs of the worldwide aging population. The plan identifies three themes to guide international policy on aging: 1) publically acknowledging the global challenges caused by, and the global opportunities created by, a rising global population; 2) empowering the elderly; and 3) linking international policies on aging to international policies on development (Zelenev 2008).

The Madrid Plan has not yet been successful in achieving all its aims. However, it has increased awareness of the various issues associated with a global aging population, as well as raising the international consciousness to the way that the factors influencing the vulnerability of the elderly (social exclusion, prejudice and discrimination, and a lack of socio-legal protection) overlap with other developmental issues (basic human rights, empowerment, and participation), leading to an increase in legal protections (Zelenev 2008).

Try It


baby boomers:
unprecedentedly large cohort of people in the United States born between approximately 1946 and 1964
dependency ratio:
the number of nonproductive citizens (young, disabled, elderly) to productive working citizens
filial piety:
deference and respect to one’s parents and ancestors in all things
life expectancy:
the number of years a newborn is expected to live
the aging process, including biological, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual changes

<a style="margin-left: 16px;" target="_blank" href=""

  1. Jiaquan Xu, M.D. (2016, January). Mortality Among Centenarians in the United States, 2000─2014. NCHS Data Brief. Retrieved from
  2. US Census Bureau. (2018, April 10). The Nation's Older Population Is Still Growing, Census Bureau Reports. Retrieved from
  3. Geewax, M. (2012, May 01). Discovering The True Cost Of At-Home Caregiving. Retrieved from


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Sociology Lumen/OpenStax Copyright © 2021 by Lumen Learning & OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book