Coming to our census

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I’ve long been on record as objecting to the use of terms like Age Wave, Senior Tsunami and the like to describe the demographic changes occurring across America (and, indeed, the world).

I take issue with such terminology because it suggests the aging of our population will be a sudden and destructive event, and it is neither. No wave will come crashing down on us unexpectedly one day; no tsunami will wreak havoc out of the clear blue.

Instead, I liken the shifting of our population to a tide — a gradual, predictable change that we can calculate in advance and, if we plan for it, turn to our advantage.

And we don’t need a futurist to figure this out for us. Ever since the baby boom generation was born during the years from 1946 to 1964, we have had a clear view of them marching toward retirement at the rate of about 1,000 a day.

Yes, boomers have only now started to turn 65 at that rate, but we have no reason to be surprised at that. (Nor should we be surprised if that generation turns out to be the longest-lived generation the earth has seen so far.)

Still, people’s jaws drop when you confront them with the statistics. So here are a few more, courtesy of a recent report from demographer William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution. I hope you find them enlightening, particularly for their political and sociological implications.

From 2000 to 2010, according to the latest publicly available U.S. census data, the population 45 and older increased at a rate 18 times as fast as the under-45 population. Those 45+ now constitute about 39 percent of all Americans.

And while our 55+ population grew by more than 50 percent during the last decade, the 35- to 44-year-old population declined by 9 percent. 

Even more interesting, Frey says the 119 million Americans 45 and over now constitute 51 percent of the voting-age population, a majority for the first time. Those who are 55 and over constitute about one-third of the voting age population.

And if you take into account the fact that older people are more likely to vote, their clout at the polls will be even higher. Judging by voting patterns in the last presidential election, Americans 45 and over will constitute about 60 percent of likely voters in the next presidential election.  

All of this is being reported as Americans find themselves preoccupied with the federal deficit and the ever-expanding costs of providing Social Security and Medicare to a generation of boomers who will be retiring even as our national workforce shrinks.

If voters choose to vote their pocketbooks, will we vote ourselves into financial oblivion? I, for one, hope we older voters can see beyond a narrow definition of self-interest and support some reasonable financial and entitlement reforms that will put our country on a sounder footing going forward.

But as I write this column, despite the fact that polls show a large majority favor sharply curbing the deficit, members of Congress and the president are inching toward a first-ever national default — a potential Armageddon in financial terms.

Before signing off, I want to share another bit of interesting data from the census. For the first time since 1910, the U.S. male population has grown at a faster rate than the female population.

Women overall actually outnumber (and, of course, outlive) men, but men may be starting to catch up a little. From 2000 to 2010, the number of men in the U.S. grew by 9.9 percent overall, compared with a growth rate of 9.5 percent for women.

Among people 65 and over, the number of men increased by 21 percent, nearly double the 11.2 percent growth rate for women of that age.

Because the ratio of women to men increases with each passing year, the fact that older men are starting to catch up might be considered good news for the women reading this column. But I’m open to hearing from readers as to how they personally feel about such statistics!