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Women in our aging society: golden years or increased dependency?

As American women grow older, their future may be precarious as budget squeezes force cuts in social services.

The U.S. is in the midst of a demographic revolution that already has penetrating effects on the nation, families, and individuals. That revolution is the aging of the population, with a significantly higher proportion of Americans in the older age groups.

America!s growing elderly population has varying levels of abilities, needs, and resources. Diversity and growth are two terms that describe it. The population aged 65 years and over commonly is grouped together under the label "the elderly," yet this is a heterogeneous population. Elderly women tend to have life circumstances quite different from elderly men. Some older people, especially single women, have significant financial and health problems and are most likely to be poor. Others, especially men and married couples, generally are more secure.

The implications of greater numbers of people 85 years and older affect women, young and old. Most care of the frail elderly is provided by females and is received by oldest women.

The lives of young women will affect their prospects in older age. Women of the baby boom generation have much higher levels of education than their mothers and grandmothers. Young women in the labor force are employed in occupations covered by Social Security and are more likely to have private pensions than is true of their mothers. Other considerations that greatly impact on women as they age include increases in divorce, the likelihood of never marrying, and single motherhood, as well as behaviors that affect health such as smoking.

For women in an aging society, their own health is not the only issue. The health of others and provisions made for care of the frail elderly affects quality of daily lives and women's choices and movements.

How these factors evolve among the elderly in the future greatly could modify the lives of women, especially those in their 50s and 60s, the age group most likely to have very old, frail relatives. Changes in women's participation in the labor force, for instance, could affect their ability to provide unpaid care. As a society and for women, the economic and psychological costs of providing this care is an issue. A nettlesome question is what young women need to do to prepare for their own old age and what kind of care they eventually will have.

In 1900, one in 25 Americans was elderly. In 1990, the proportion was one in eight. By 2030, it is likely to be one in five. Four-generation families will be common. In 1993, about 60% of America's nearly 33,000,000 elderly are women.

Changes in age composition can have dramatic political, economic, and social effects on a nation. In the past, declines in the number of births have been the most important contributor to the long-term aging trend. Now, however, the improved chance of survival to the oldest ages, especially for females, is the most significant factor in the growth of the very old population.

Because of relatively low birth rates from the 1920s through World War II, growth in the size of the elderly population will be steady, but undramatic, until after 2011, when the baby boom generation (born 1946-64) begins to reach age 65. From 2011 through the middle of the 21st century, growth in the elderly population will be more dramatic as the baby boom becomes the grandparent boom. From 2011 to 2030, the baby boom generation will be the young old (65-74 years old) and the aged (75-84 years old).

It is the size of the oldest elderly population (most of whom are women) that will be noticed most after 2030 as the great-grandparent boom begins. Already, the size of the oldest elderly population is sufficient to have a major impact on the nation's health and social service systems. The population aged 85 and over is expected to grow from 3,000,000 in 1990 to more than 8,000,000 in 2030. This group would more than double in size again by 2050, to nearly 18,000,000, as the baby boom cohort reaches the oldest ages. These projections assume recent trends continue. If life expectancy increases at a faster rate, particularly among the oldest elderly, the numbers will be much higher.

Under current mortality conditions, 80% of newborns would live to see their 65th birthday. Life expectancy at birth is about 75 years. Women aged 65 can expect to need to finance an additional two decades of life on average. Most will outlive their husbands, which has economic implications for females.

As life expectancy continues to increase, the number of years of good health in relation to those of chronic illness is important. Without major improvements in health among the very old, it can be expected that there will be many more people with longterm dependency. It is highly likely that more people in their 50s and 60s will have very elderly family members who need the care and attention traditionally provided mostly by females.

Work and retirement

The aging of America and developments among the elderly population do not take place in a vacuum. The projected trends for women's work and education will affect the experience of women in an aging society.

Today, most females work continuously until retirement. Those in their 50s and early 60s are increasingly likely to be in the paid labor force. Such females are the ones who probably will be called on to provide care for the frail elderly.

The women of the baby boom generation, many of whom delayed marriage and childbirth while establishing themselves in the labor force, are more likely to be working than their mothers were. The attachment of females under age 45 to the labor force is unprecedented. Women retiring in 1980 averaged 45% of their adult lives in the workforce. The Social Security Administration projects that those retiring in 2020 will have spent 71% of their adult lives in the labor force. That increased commitment has implications for women's lifetime earnings, pension coverage, and ability to provide significant levels of care for frail elderly relatives.

The over-all labor pool remains sharply segregated by sex. Women have made some progress entering management and the professions. The majority, though, still are in traditional, low-paying occupations where more than half the workers are female. The number of women in high-paying jobs remains small relative to men. The most improvement in occupational mix has been among younger women.

Pension coverage. Men generally receive higher pension benefits than women. Elderly black women tend to have fewer resources for retirement than older white ones. They are less likely to receive a pension, have completed high school, own their homes or other valuable assets, or be married. These differences in resources exist even when educational level is the same, which could reflect the effects of past discrimination.

As a result of the greater likelihood of women working now than in the past, young and middle-aged females have a better chance of having been in the labor force long enough to have savings, pensions, and Social Security in their own names. This could make a significant difference in the economic status of more women as they age. Nevertheless, males aged 35-64 have higher pension coverage and vesting rates than females in that age group. The disparity in earnings between men and women is one factor in this difference.

It is difficult to predict whether, in the future, as large a proportion of people in their early 60s will be able to afford to retire early as do now. Some believe society is seeing the "golden age of the golden years." Baby boom retirees may be less well-off economically than today's retirees. Savings are down; pensions are becoming less generous; and workers are supporting an increasing portion of the cost of their retirement plans.

Income differences. Over all, the economic position of elderly men and women has improved significantly since the 1970s. Yet, not everyone within the elderly population has shared equally in the income gains. Elderly women who live alone, for example, have lower incomes on average than do married couples.

Elderly females generally are less secure economically than elderly males. There may be some improvement in a few decades as more women with higher education have a history of long-term employment. It is likely that unmarried elderly women, most of whom are widowed and relatively old, will continue to be at risk financially and have low pensions compared to men and married couples.

There has been a dramatic reduction in the last 30 years in the percentage of elderly who are poor. In 1959, 35% were; in 1990, 12%. Nevertheless, there are important differences among subgroups. The elderly poor are disproportionately female, black or Hispanic, 75 years and older, and living alone. The economic situation for elderly black women has been particularly intractable; their poverty rates did not improve over the decade of the 1980s. Among the elderly aged 75 and older, the 1990 poverty rate for black women (44%) was more than double that for white women (17%) and over five times that for white men (eight percent).

The elderly who live alone are much more likely to be poor than aged married-couple family householders. In 1990, 24% of white elderly females who lived alone were poor, compared with 58% of black elderly women and 50% of Hispanic aged females. For elderly married couples, poverty rates were lower for whites (four percent) than blacks (22%) or Hispanics (16%).

Education is associated closely with lifetime economic status. This is especially important for the future because a greater proportion of females of the baby boom generation have completed high school and college than have today's elderly women.

Marital status, living arrangements, and educational attainment vary considerably within the older population and will change in future generations. Because of longevity factors, elderly men are much more likely than women to be married. Thus, most elderly males have a spouse for assistance when health fails, while most elderly females do not. Over 9,000,000 elderly live alone; 78% are women.

As men improve their chances of survival, women will face widowhood later than do today's elderly females. It also appears that a higher proportion of younger women never will marry. This and the much higher rates of divorce indicate long-term economic strains that could affect the eventual economic status of a large group of women as they age. The trend leads to expectations that females in their 50s will want to remain in the labor force.

The older population increasingly is more educated. Since the better educated tend to be better off economically and stay healthier longer, it is important that the proportion of elderly with at least a high school diploma is increasing.

Educational attainment generally is lower among blacks and Hispanics, compared with whites. More than 84% of whites aged 45-49 have a high school education, and about 25% have had four or more years of college. By comparison, 69% of blacks and 48% of Hispanics aged 45-49 have a high school diploma. Only one in seven blacks that age have completed four or more years of college, as have one in 10 Hispanics. This implies the likelihood of continued differences in health and economic status in old age.

Population aging and

patterns of dependency

It is increasingly likely that more and more people in their 50s and 60s will have surviving parents, aunts, and uncles. Many will face the concern and expense of caring for very old, frail relatives.

Over 4,000,000 elderly persons need assistance with one or more everyday activities. Chronic illnesses increase with age and are more common among women, who average more years of chronic illness than men. Among those aged 85 and over, almost 25% live in a nursing home because of serious health problems. Of the oldest elderly living at home, about 20% are unable to carry on a major activity and 40% have a condition that limits their activities. Functional limitations are highest among elderly black women and those with relatively low incomes.

It is possible to get a rough idea of the need for family support over time by looking at the relative sizes of the population 85 years and over, compared with the number aged 50-64 years. In 1950, there were three people 85 years and older per 100 aged 50-64. In 1990, there were nine. That ratio will at least triple again to 28 by 2050.

The experience and problems of the young old caring for the oldest old will become more and more familiar throughout society. The physical condition of the young old, especially women since they provide most care, may become a serious issue as they try to help frail elderly move from beds to baths and toilets. It is likely there will be increased demand for mechanical aids and changes in private homes as well as access to public buildings for the disabled.

As medical technology provides more ways to save and extend lives, the U.S. can expect to see the duration of chronic illness to lengthen and the need for help to increase. The strain of caring for frail elderly relatives could affect worker productivity. Women in particular face decisions about leaving the labor force or working part time to care for frail relatives at just the time when they want to work for retirement benefits for their own old age. Other women are responsible for frail relatives while adjusting to their own retirement, widowhood, physical limitations, and reduced incomes. If medical advances slow mortality rates among the elderly, but not disability rates, the number of elderly disabled would grow in the future just from the increased number of surviving oldest elderly.

In an increasingly interdependent and aging world, the US. is remarkable for the diversity of its female population. It never is easy to arrive at a shared vision when there are strong differences, but that is America's challenge. The pace and direction of demographic changes will create compelling social, economic, and ethical choices for individuals, families, and governments into the 21st century. The directions Americans choose and the decisions they make directly will affect the quality and vitality of their lives for many decades.

Individual women, and all of American society, face the challenge of anticipating and preparing for the changing needs and desires of a diverse, aging U.S.

Ms. Taeuber is chief, Age & Sex Statistics Branch, Population Division, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Author:Taeuber, Cynthia M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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