Writer: Lee Shearer
Published July 9, 2017
We’re still getting older here in the United States.
The median age in the United States was 35.3 in 2000. As of July 1, 2016, it had reached 37.9, according to recently released U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
In Georgia, the median age has increased from 33.4 to 36.5 in that time, according to Census Bureau estimates.
You can see those national trends here in the Athens area. The Census Bureau estimates go all the way down to the county level.
The median age — the halfway point, with half the people older and half younger — rose from 35.2 to 39.1 in Oconee County, from 36.8 to 42.9 in Oglethorpe County, from 35.8 to 41.1 in Madison County, according to the estimates.
Even Clarke County, one of the state’s youngest places with its huge, unchangingly young student population, is getting older. Clarke County’s median age was all of 27.8 last year, up from 25.4 in 2000.
The number of people 65 and older in Clarke County was 8,208, according to the 2000 census. Last year it reached 12,719 - a 55 percent increase.
Clarke’s overall population grew by about 23 percent in that time. In Madison County, the 65-plus population grew 75 percent in the same period.
Part of what’s happening is simply the result of the huge Baby Boom generation getting older.
But that’s only part of it. The country, and the world, is on track to keep aging even after the Baby Boomers are gone.
Humans are living longer and having fewer children.
Populations shrink or grow in three ways: people are born, people die, and people move.
In Athens, that third factor may be helping to drive the median age up.
This city of young people has become a popular retirement destination.
For three consecutive years, Forbes magazine has listed Athens as one of the United States’ 25 best places to retire. Now AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, has featured that ranking on its website.
Athenian Cathy Kirkland agrees with Forbes’ assessment of Athens.
Kirkland, president of the Athens Area Newcomers Club, moved here from Prescott, Arkansas in 2013 after her husband died.
She looked at a map, with a few factors in mind. She wanted to remain in the South. She wanted access to specialized medical care. She wanted a place with a major university for the cultural opportunities and to be in a place where she could continue to learn.
She’d heard there was an organization that offered learning opportunities for older people in Athens, though she didn’t at that time know its name - the University of Georgia’s OLLI, formerly called the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
And she wanted a place reasonably close to the ocean, which Athens is compared to Arkansas. It’s about eight hours from Prescott to Biloxi, Mississippi; it’s a little more than four hours from Athens to Tybee Island.
“Absolutely,” said Kirkland, asked if she agreed with the Forbes assessment. “I’m very happy with my decision.”
Most members of the Newcomers Club, many of who did retire to Athens, would likely agree that it’s a good place to retire, said Carol Weaver, the club’s treasurer.
The aging of America, and of Athens, has its good side, but it’s also a crisis in the making.
The process is just getting started, with no end in sight. And it’s happening all over the world; some areas, such as Europe, are aging even faster than the United States.
Here in the United States, the Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population over 65 will double in the next 50 years, while the population of people 18 to 64 will grow by 4 percent, noted Matt Hauer, a demographer with UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
Economists use a term called the “dependency ratio” to describe what’s happening, Hauer said. It’s an expression of the ration between people too young to work, plus people past retirement age, to the number of people in between- the working-age, tax-paying population, more or less.
As of 2010, that dependency ratio was about 67, according to a recent Census Bureau studied that defined the younger dependency group as people under 20, and the older group as people 65 and older. By 2050, that dependency ratio will be 85, calculated demographers Grayson Vincent and Victoria Velkoff.
The change will be mostly owing to increase in old-age dependency, which will increase from 22 to 37, while the youth dependency ratio will only increase relatively little, from 45 to 48.
There are some obvious challenges an aging population raises - Social Security benefits are funded not by the taxes recipients have paid during their working careers, but by the taxes paid by current workers, for example.
Another problem, Hauer said, is succession planning — identifying and developing new leaders or managers to replace the wave of retiring workers.
People tend to forget about it, but “succession planning is pretty critical,” he said.
There’s a good side to an aging America and Athens, said Eve Anthony, executive director of the Athens Area Council on Aging.
People are healthier in old age now and remain active longer. They’re able to contribute back to their communities, getting involved in civic activities, doing volunteer work, starting second careers, she said.
But there’s reason for concern, too, she said.
There aren’t enough doctors, nurses, home care workers and other professionals to meet the growing need for them. Transportation becomes an increasing challenge, to buy groceries or to get to medical care, especially for older people in rural areas such as Oglethorpe County.
Meanwhile, funding for services such as those provided by the Council on Aging have waned as the need for them grows, and seem likely to be cut even more under the Trump administration’s proposed federal budget.
Federal funding for Meals on Wheels, which provides home-delivered meals for people whose ability to get about is limited, is less now than it was in 2000, she said. The waiting list in Athens for Meals on Wheels is six months to a year.
There’s also a waiting list to get into the Council on Aging’s Adult Day Health programs, which help keep people out of nursing homes.
And we’re not doing things that could save taxpayer money in the long run, such as helping people pay for ramps or other modifications that would let them stay in their homes longer rather than going to a nursing home, she said.
“Unfortunately, though, we’ve been talking about it for a long time,” Anthony said. “I don’t know that we’ve done a good job of preparing for it.”