What Happens When 'Young-Old' Baby Boomers Become 'Old-Old'?

People drink in a bar on April 2019 in Bath, New York, a poster city for America's changing demographics. An aging population, falling birthrates and slower immigration mean the country is growing more slowly than at any time since the Great Depression. It's also a signal that as older people become a greater percentage of the population, how we adjust to that change matters. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A number of people were not impressed with my recent post, What will happen when 20% of the population is over 65? One person wrote that it was offensive, "It's so unbalanced and stereotyped it's mind boggling that you would include it. Are you on a mission to help accelerate discrimination against older people?"

Actually, the intent was the exact opposite. In that post and in most of the posts I write, I'm trying to focus attention on the demographic issue of what happens in about 10 years, when the baby boomers start hitting their 80s in serious numbers, and was trying to use the example of what's happening in Japan now as a way of anticipating what might happen in North America.

In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel released the "Bookends" album with the song "Old Friends" which includes the lines:

Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy ...

A lot has changed. Today's baby boomers are healthier and more active than ever, and most who are over 65 cannot even really be considered "old." They certainly aren't sitting on park benches quietly. I'm one of them at 66, so I'm certainly not on a mission to discriminate against my generation. Some have said we're in an extended middle age. Personally, I'm hoping this stage lasts a long time, but time is still against us. Camilla Cavendish writes in the paywalled Financial Times:

"The 'Young-Old' are very active and healthy and productive — totally different from 30 years ago," says Professor Takao Suzuki, professor of gerontology at Tokyo's JF Oberlin University, who defines Young-Old as 60 to 75 — or older. "The World Health Organization defines 'old' as 65: but as gerontologists, our main concern is with the 'Old-Old', who are very different".

The Old-Old have very different needs from the Young-Old, and soon there are going to be a lot of them. My point in the post is that we have to get ready for that moment, and the time to start doing this is now, not 10 years from now.

I suspect the paragraph in my post that was considered offensive was the second one, where I imagine "untold millions of them [baby boomers], clogging the exits of the subways, blocking sidewalks and bike lanes with their walkers and mobility devices. Millions of drivers like my late mom, who would drive slowly down the middle of two lanes because it scared her when people passed her."

This was, in fact, a recognition of the reality that our transit systems need more escalators and elevators, that our sidewalks need widening, and that we need alternatives to cars for the vast numbers of Old-Old people in the USA in 10 years.

We still have a chance to get ahead of this

Cyclist in Malmo Sweden
A senior cyclist in Sweden demonstrates one of the easiest solutions to the thorny transportation issue: One solution for a growing population of older people to become less reliant on cars, both for health and for opportunity. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The post was meant as a warning that we could end up like Japan, where many young people apparently have come to resent the old people around them — in a nation where they usually get respect — and that to avoid this, we have to deal with the problems the old-old will face.

It's not just the in the sidewalks and subways, either; the Old-Old are going to have trouble finding places to live. A recent study published in Health Affairs notes that middle-income older people, without enough money for private seniors housing, but too much to qualify for low income, will have real problems.

We project that by 2029 there will be 14.4 million middle-income seniors, 60 percent of whom will have mobility limitations and 20 percent of whom will have high health care and functional needs. While many of these seniors will likely need the level of care provided in seniors housing, we project that 54 percent of seniors will not have sufficient financial resources to pay for it.

That's fully half the Old-Old population. This is what I've been writing about in posts like We're facing a demographic time bomb. This is my concern, trying to get people to worry about this issue of what life will be like when there are as many as 60 million baby boomers who are Old-Old.

So again, I want to apologize, I didn't mean to offend. I meant to draw attention to the reality of 2029, which is closer than we think.

Since we don't have comments on MNN, if I do offend or if you just want to discuss, please feel free to send an email to feedback@mnn.com.