Population implosion sits on U.S. horizon

Babies being born today will land on a crucial population milestone when they reach their 18th birthdays. For the first time, just 18 years from now, the U.S. will have more citizens over age 65 than it will have children and minors under age 18.

Also, by 2035, natural-born children under age 18 will be outnumbered by immigrant children in their age category, thus elevating international migration to becoming the primary driver of U.S. population growth.

Population projections such as these have been made before. But these come from the nation’s premier nose-counter, the U.S. Census Bureau. Last week, as field testing got underway for the forms that will be used in the upcoming 2020 Census, the government agency released the third—and final—analysis of statistical data from the 2010 Census.

A Census Bureau news release didn’t examine too deeply the raft of various public policy matters that will be affected by the country’s changing demographics. Chief among them, though, is the collection and distribution of funds for ever-increasing health and medical costs when 20% of the U.S. population will be at retirement age.

Transportation, banking and housing systems will also require new formats to accommodate the needs of seniors.

Social Security and Medicare, the political arena’s proverbial “elephant in the room,” generate anxiety because there has been little or no movement to prepare for an aged population that will outnumber the younger populations. In 2020—a mere two years from now—there will be 3.5 working adults for each Social Security beneficiary. By 2060, after 40 more years of population aging, there will be only 2.5 working adults per beneficiary, the Census Bureau said.

Political gridlock creates uncertainty and portends a public policy disaster. On one side, ideologically conservative think tanks and lobbying groups exert pressure for weaning Americans away from the 78-year-old Social Security program in favor of individualized retirement savings accounts. On the other side, an array of liberal advocacy groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) hope that shifting demographics between the different age groups will ultimately smooth themselves out and the system can survive with a few temporary financial adjustments.

According to the Census Bureau’s latest projections, in 2030 every surviving member of the Baby Boomer Generation will be 65 years old or older. There were 76 million Baby Boomers who were born between 1946 and 1960, and 65.2 million of them were alive as recently as 2012.

The Census Bureau anticipates that national death rates will climb as Baby Boomers reach older adulthood. The process has already started. In 2015, two states—West Virginia and Maine—along with almost one-third of the nation’s 3,142 counties (and their equivalent governmental entities) posted population losses because deaths outpaced births.

“As the old population dies, the racial and ethnic makeup of the younger population will play a larger role in shaping the demographic profile of the population,” Census Bureau division chief Jason Devine said in report last October.

Devine’s examination of aging populations revealed that other countries, Japan in particular, are already struggling with the issue. More than 25% of Japan’s current population is over age 65 and its population is expected to shrink by 20 million people by 2050, Devine calculated.

Devine said the U.S. is entering a period when each year will bring an historic number of deaths; and, “the number and percentage of people who die will increase dramatically every year, peaking in 2055 (when the last remaining Baby Boomers will be at least 85 years old) before leveling off gradually.”

While West Virginia and Maine experienced the highest ratios of deaths to their total populations, three other states—Alabama, Mississippi and Pennsylvania—also logged more deaths than births. Regardless, Florida remained the state with the nation’s largest plus-65 population (19.4% in 2015).

Unsurprisingly, Florida’s Sumter County has the nation’s highest ratio of plus-65 residents (54.8%). It’s home to The Villages, a plus-55 community that has grown to 115,000 residents and has more golf carts than anywhere in the country (the community has 36 nine-hole and 12 18-hole golf courses). And there’s no end in sight. For the last two years, The Villages has been singled out as the country’s fastest-growing community.

–By Edward Zuckerman