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Projections Show An Aging U.S. Population


A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is giving us a glimpse into our future. According to the latest population projections, adults 65 and older will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history by the year 2035. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has more.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Baby boomers are driving this graying of America. It's a group that Ronald Lee has been tracking for decades at the University of California, Berkeley. That's where he was a founding director...

RONALD LEE: ...Of the Center for the Economics and Demography of Aging.

WANG: And he says you can think about the aging of baby boomers like a pig being swallowed whole by a python.

LEE: The pig is a baby boomer. It's not that they're greedy. It could as well be a sheep or a big rock. It's just - it's a bulge.

WANG: And as this bulge of baby boomers moves through each decade, they're making dramatic shifts in the country's demographics. By 2030, all baby boomers will be older than 65, and the Census Bureau projects that will grow the size of the older population so much that 1 in 5 people in the U.S. will be retirement age. And by that point, the baby boomer generation, or that pig, if you will, will be closer to the end of the python.

LEE: Unlike the pig in the python, it doesn't get digested. It gradually dies off.

WANG: And over the next three decades, the Census Bureau is projecting those deaths will outpace the number of births in the U.S.

LAUREN MEDINA: The population is expected to naturally increase very slowly.

WANG: That was Lauren Medina, a demographer who co-wrote the Census Bureau's report. She says by 2030, the U.S. will hit another demographic milestone. For the first time in U.S. history, immigration, and not births, will be the main driver of the country's population growth.

MEDINA: This projected trend has less to do with international migration than with population aging.

WANG: And not only is the U.S. population aging, it's also expected to live longer than ever before. In fact, the Census Bureau projects a 200 percent increase in the number of people 85 and older between now and 2060, which leads Ronald Lee to ask...

LEE: Is a shrinking labor force going to have to support a growing number of elderly?

WANG: Lee says, yes, that's a real concern. But he says there could be some benefits from fewer children living in the U.S., like less pressure to fit more students in overfilled schools and smaller class sizes.

LEE: Fewer kids in families goes with parents having more time to spend with each child.

WANG: It's all part of a major demographic shift that will take some getting used to in the U.S. But Lee says we're not alone.

LEE: You know, every country in the world is headed in this direction.

WANG: And you could say the U.S. is still a spring chicken compared to the world's oldest population, Japan. Today, more than a quarter of the people there are 65 or older. The Census Bureau projects you won't be able to say that about people in the U.S. until 2060. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Will you still need me, will you still feed me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang is a national correspondent for NPR based in New York City. He reports on the people, power and money behind the 2020 census.
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