'Gray Divorce' and Other Demographic Trends

It used to be that parents said "I'll support you when you're young but you support me when you're older." But the new reality is different.
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Every day for the next 18 years, 10,000 people will reach the age of 65. You've probably heard that data-loaded sentence before. Its source is the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., a "fact tank" where all manner of demographic research takes place to describe and forecast societal developments.

Last night I had the good fortune to hear self-described storyteller Paul Taylor speak about such trends when he gave a fascinating talk about his latest book, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown in which he observes much more than what I'll be telling here. Taylor, a former reporter at The Washington Post, oversees demographic, social and generational research at the statistics-driven Pew Center. His presentation brought life and relevance to the data.

The setting was Stanford University and the program was co-sponsored by its Center on Longevity, whose mission is to redesign long life by using science and technology to improve the well-being of those over age 50. Mostly grey-haired, studious types filled the seats in the auditorium. They were interested, as I was, in the older generations' (Boomers, 1946-1964 and Silent generation, 1928-1945) continuing impact on society. It was delightful to hear this from Taylor, a boomer who is probably old enough to be a new Medicare recipient himself.

Taylor suggested that demographic change is "drama in slow motion," as societies transform. He focused on two seminal shifts in the U.S. that impact the future in significant ways: 1) the movement toward a multiracial society and 2) extended aging.

The first of these trends is patently obvious in California where I live and which has become so diverse that a majority ethnic group no longer exists. Millennials (1980-2000) are most comfortable with this occurrence and to a lesser extent, the GenX generation, those born between 1964-1980. I'm confident that the rest of us who are older will catch up and adapt.

Regarding aging, the trend looks quite dramatic when you view it graphically. Picture the historic pyramid ∧ with a broad base of the very young and a peak with a tiny number of those over age 85. By the year 2060, according to Taylor, "one-half million will be 100+ ... causing the pyramid to get top heavy," as people live longer and the birth rate goes down. No longer a pyramid, the way to graphically show the proportions of old to young will take on the form of a tall rectangle [] or perhaps even an inverted triangle as time goes by. The U.S. isn't the only country with such numbers. In Japan, for example, Taylor indicated that the median age is 53! The world is edging upward age-wise. It's simple. People are living longer primarily due to better health options and medical breakthroughs.

The implications of these facts are intriguing. There's much evidence of generational interdependence, such as between Millennials and Boomers, but the direction might surprise you. It used to be that parents said, "I'll support you when you're young, but you support me when you're older." But the new reality is different. The older generations, Silent and Boomer, are in fact the most financially secure. Millennials are the least secure as they came into adulthood during the great recession and have not yet recovered. Their savings are low, good jobs continue to be scarce and living at home with boomer parents is not unusual. Here in California, and maybe elsewhere, GenX'rs and Millennials often can't afford to buy even a starter house without parental help with a down payment.

One other statistic is worth noting -- "gray divorce." While divorce rates for young people have leveled off, "one in four who are 50 or older" gets divorced according to Taylor, who quipped that due to increased human longevity, there may be "another adventure out there and a lot more of life" to explore. People are less willing to tolerate a poor relationship when the long haul becomes even longer.

Concluding his talk, Taylor suggested a challenge for us Boomers and beyond. Consider this: The younger generations differ from the older in some significant ways, e.g., "they don't look alike, don't think alike." Are we as elders going to support them when we don't see the world the same way? What do you think?

Although we are more financially secure, ironically, the young do provide a cushion for us through payroll contributions to Social Security and Medicare. And we can take comfort in something else that we do have and can continue to offer to younger generations: Our wisdom.

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