(December 2001) The aging of unprecedented numbers of Americans will have profound economic and social implications over the next several decades, and preparing for these changes will require an understanding of the changing characteristics of older Americans, says a new Population Reference Bureau (PRB) report.

This century’s elderly are among the wealthiest and among the poorest in the United States and come from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, says PRB’s Population Bulletin. Some of those 65 years or older are employed full time, while others require full-time care. General health has improved, but many elderly suffer from poor health, notes the Bulletin, titled, “Elderly Americans.”

Authored by Christine L. Himes, the report says that with Social Security and pension income at historic highs and with the net worth of retirees increasing, the financial well-being of older Americans has never been better. In 2000, 10 percent of those 65 years or older were below the poverty line, compared with 35 percent in 1959.

However, some minority groups are not so well off. Lifetime patterns of lower wages, fewer investment opportunities, and lower levels of education mean that, on average, non-whites enter old age with fewer resources than whites. Minority women who live alone are the poorest. In 2000, some 43 percent of older black women who lived alone fell below the poverty line, and 11 percent had incomes just above poverty.

In general, women are less likely than men to have had jobs that qualify them to collect the maximum Social Security benefits, to be eligible for private pensions, or to have accumulated wealth. At the same time, older women outnumber older men, a reflection of women’s higher life expectancy. In 2000, life expectancy at birth was nearly 80 years for women, more than five years higher than that for men.

Overall, the proportion of Americans 65 years or older will increase from about one in eight in 2000 to roughly one in five by 2030, current estimates show. This growth is being propelled by the “baby-boom” generation — the roughly 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964 who already have had a major impact on U.S. school systems and the workplace.

“This same group of people will change the profile and expectations of old age in the United States over the next 30 years,” according to the report. “Our society is just beginning to face the complex issues involved in an aging society.”

In addition to increased life expectancy, couples in the United States are having fewer children. Together, these trends are leading to families with more — but smaller — generations. Longer life expectancy will also increase the length of time families are likely to include someone with an age-related disability. If longer lives yield more years of good health, however, older Americans may be able to play an active role in their families for longer periods.

In yet another trend, immigration is influencing the age structure of some minority groups. Although most immigrants tend to be young adults, the number of older immigrants is increasing rapidly as more foreign-born elderly move to the United States from Latin America, Asia, or Africa to join their children. These older immigrants, plus those aging groups who had entered the country as young adults, are altering the ethnic makeup of elderly Americans.

Yvette Collymore is senior editor at the Population Reference Bureau.

Download the full report Elderly Americans, by Christine Himes