As politicians, members of Congress, the media and many others anticipate, discuss and strategize for the 2024 presidential election, America’s population is expected to experience a significant demographic event with serious social, economic and political implications in that year: the Historic Reversal.
The Historic Reversal occurs to a country’s population when older persons aged 65 years and above outnumber children under age 15 years. That noteworthy demographic milestone expected in 2024 signifies a significant and far-reaching aging transformation of the U.S. population and society. It will usher in a new era unlike any in much of the country’s youthful past when approximately one out of three Americans were children under age 15 years.
America’s aging population, some warn, threatens to overwhelm the nation’s budget and also cause slower economic growth and diminished geopolitical stature for the country. Also as the U.S. electorate ages, the sociopolitical mood of the country is expected to become more risk-averse, have shorter time horizons and less willing to make long-term investments.
About 100 years ago, at the time of the 1924 U.S. presidential election, the proportion of Americans aged 65 years and older was far less than that for children under 15 years of age, approximately 5 and 31 percent, respectively. In the upcoming 2024 presidential election, the proportion of Americans aged 65 years and older is expected to exceed that for children under age 15 years for the first time in the nation’s history, 19 versus 18 percent, respectively.
Over the coming decades, even with the Census Bureau projections of more than 1million immigrants per year, the aging of the U.S. population will become even more pronounced. In 50 years, for example, the proportions of America’s elderly and children are projected to reach 26 and 16 percent, respectively. The demographic aging in the U.S. may be described as a transformation from less child care to more eldercare.
Throughout the history of human populations, the number of elderly persons aged 65 years and older has been substantially less than children under age 15 years. The first country to have experienced the Historic Reversal was Italy near the end of the 20th century.
Since Italy’s transition, the number of countries experiencing the Historic Reversal has now reached about three dozen, including most European countries, Canada, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. By 2030 the number of countries passing through the Historic Reversal is expected to exceed 50, including America in 2024, Russia in 2027, Australia in 2028 and China in 2029.
The consequences of population aging and longer life spans of America’s population are pervasive and substantial, affecting virtually all major areas of human activity, including employment, taxation, consumption, investment, retirement, recreation, health care, politics, voting, elections and foreign policy.
In particular, population aging and rising health care costs per person present major financial and logistical challenges to America’s major programs for the elderly: Social Security and Medicare. According to the recently released 2021 long-term budget outlook of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), federal spending on Social Security, Medicare and other major health benefit programs will increase by 6.4 percent of GDP between 2019 and 2051, i.e., from 10.8 to 17.2 percent.
With the projected rising federal costs are more elderly beneficiaries and relatively fewer workers contributing financially to support them. For example, the number of persons in working ages 15 to 64 for each person aged 65 years and older has declined from nearly eight in 1950 to about four today and is projected to decline even further to slightly more than two by 2070.
If the government decides to maintain the existing programs for the elderly in the future, it has a number of options at its disposal. As in the past, Congress will be obliged, albeit reluctantly, to consider raising eligibility ages, increasing relevant taxes and reducing benefits and services.
In addition, many elderly Americans will inevitably develop mental and physical functional limitations requiring costly long-term health care and caregiving. For example, the number of elderly persons with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias is expected to nearly triple over the next 40 years, reaching 14 million by 2060.
Currently the demand for caregivers in private homes, assisted-living communities, memory-care centers, hospice facilities and nursing homes is outstripping the supply. That situation is expected to worsen with growing numbers of America’s elderly needing care services. According to the U.S. Labor Department, overall employment of home and personal care aides is expected to jump 34 percent from 2019 to 2029.
The aging of the U.S. population will increasingly impact the policies of the major U.S. political parties and the outcomes of elections. As the elderly become a larger share of the voting electorate, elected officials and those seeking public office can be expected to increasingly focus on the concerns, wellbeing and needs of older persons, particularly Social Security payments, Medicare benefits and related health care expenses.
Based on exit polling in the 2020 election, for example, nearly two-thirds, or 62 percent, of those below age 30 years voted for the Democratic presidential candidate, a majority of those aged 65 years and older, or 51 percent, voted for the Republican presidential candidate. To retain those older voters, the Republican party faces challenges regarding its policies of reduced entitlements, cuts to federal spending, less government intervention and more self-reliance.
Among the many expected changes in American society, the Historic Reversal and ongoing aging of the country’s population are likely to lead to a major rethinking of an often quoted political view about the role of government, famously articulated by President Ronald Reagan some 40 years ago, i.e., "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem". Increasingly, voters may come to a very different conclusion with respect to the aging of the U.S. population and perhaps other significant changes to America's population, namely, government is not the problem, government can be the solution.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."