Happy birthday to us!
Birthdays can be wonderful celebrations for families and friends, and lots of us are having lots of them! In fact, we the American people are having so many birthdays, we are now older than we have ever been.
Our median age in 2022 was a record-breaking 38.9 years old, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released last month. And while the graying of nations is an international phenomenon, we remain younger than many European nations that have a median age of 44.
Japan is the oldest industrialized nation with a median age of nearly 49 years, while tiny Monaco has the world’s oldest population at a median age of 55.4.
Many Americans, including this writer, look at 39 as relatively young, but in demographic terms, we have become much older relatively quickly.
Our median age in 1980 was 30, in 2000 it was 35, and now it is almost 39. Cumberland County is a bit of an outlier with a much younger median age of 31.4 years, in part because of the young people and young families stationed here in military service.
Compare that to our neighbors in Bladen and Sampson Counties, with median ages above the national average at 44.8 and 40.3 respectively.
So what does this graying of America mean? Firstly, it is all about numbers and trends. And once trends have begun, they play themselves out, meaning that because our birth rate has fallen 20% since the Great Recession of the late 2000s, there are simply fewer babies to bring down the median age.
American millennials, as well as those in other industrialized nations, have put education and career before starting families. Some research also suggests that many of them will not have children for various reasons, including fear of the future, environmental concerns, toxic politics, and fertility issues.
In other words, another trend can emerge if our birth rate increases, but the current one will continue.
In addition, as the United States continues to gray, we are also becoming a more diverse nation. So far this decade, our Asian population has grown the most, followed by our Hispanic population, followed by Blacks, then whites. Southern and Western states are growing rapidly through both births and migration from other states and nations.
The scary part is that many — soon to be most — older Americans are no longer working and paying taxes on their wages, shifting that burden to younger and fewer Americans who are building careers. Will they be willing and able to pay for the social programs, primarily Social Security and Medicare, needed and expected by the millions of Baby Boomers now retiring in droves and even as their life spans continue to increase?
Economists have been pondering this situation for decades, and the rubber is now hitting the road. The United States confronts questions about the allocation of precious public resources among generations.
Other nations, some with much more robust social programs, face similar dilemmas. The World Bank suggests several strategies to address the consequences of an aging population. These include improving educational quality at all levels to generate a more productive workforce, encouraging women and seniors to remain in the workforce, increasing savings at all levels — federal, state, local and personal, and supporting innovation and emerging technology.
And, lest you think the aging of America is not a pressing issue, ponder this. The U.S. Census Bureau says people 65 and over will outnumber Americans under 18 by 2034.
That is a mere 11 years away.