Don't look now but we are getting grayer
Published April 29, 2022
By Tom Campbell
North Carolina is neither a red state, nor blue. It is increasingly becoming a gray state. In 1960 our state’s median age was 25.5 years. The 2020 census reports it is 39.1, with more people 60 and over than are under 18, numbers that are increasing. Demographers predict that by 2028 one in five (20 percent) will be 65 and older.
This data forecasts big changes and potential stress in several areas, including education, healthcare, the workforce, housing, government services and our communities. Nowhere will this stress reach higher levels than in government services. Look for a much greater emphasis on services for the elderly, especially since this age group votes in greater percentage than most others and politicians know it. Government leaders will find themselves struggling to prioritize spending, with three options: reallocating existing revenues, reducing benefits or raising taxes.
One of the truisms in government is that once a benefit is provided to people it is highly difficult to revoke or reduce it. Take Social Security and Medicare as an example. Both are teetering on financial insolvency and, as more people reach the entry age and fewer are paying into the programs, a crisis is inevitable. The French Revolution would pale in comparison to the Wrinkle Revolution that would result if either benefit was eliminated or even reduced. And, unless I misread peoples’ moods, raising taxes isn’t going to happen. Most likely, the future promises a reallocation of resources.
Education must change. Primary, secondary and higher education, already in upheaval, will suffer from reallocations. North Carolina spends some 57 cents of every tax dollar on education. That number will likely be reduced, especially in higher education, and is sure to cause consternation.
Healthcare will also feel the stress. North Carolina is already one of the least healthy states in the union. A large reason for this is because 17 percent of us either currently smoke or have in the past. Additionally, we have among the highest rates of obesity (one in three adults) and high blood pressure. Life expectancy in our state is 78.1 years, a year less than the national average. Men’s life expectancy is 75.11 years, while women live to 80.37 years. And the older we get the more care and more costly healthcare is required. Our nation already spends $11,945 per capita on healthcare, more than any other industrialized nation, yet we have the lowest life expectancy of all the others and measure last in health care access and quality. All symptoms point to more stress.
The workforce will face stress tests. Part of the reason why employers are having so much trouble hiring people is that the workforce, those aged 15-64, is shrinking. Nearly one million over 65 left the workforce during the pandemic. Between 2020 and 2060 the 65 and older population will nearly double, from 56 million to 96 million. Even with some 100,000 people per year moving into our state there could be pressure on needed workforce requirements.
13.6 percent of North Carolinians now live below the poverty level and that number is going to accelerate. Many Baby Boomers never imagined they would get old and haven’t prepared for retirement. The median net worth in the country for those over 65 is $266,400 or less. Do the math. If North Carolinians reach age 80, they will have about 18,000 per year on which to live. Even adding in Social Security, many will have trouble getting by and require more assistance. No wonder the elderly worry they will run out of money before they run out of life.
But there will be many resulting opportunities. The emphasis in housing will subtly shift, as both standalone houses, apartments and complexes targeted to senior living are developed, offering amenities aimed at those over 60. Some smaller towns will begin marketing themselves as the ideal nesting place for older residents, welcomed because they don’t require schools and other infrastructure. 43 percent of Seniors express loneliness, so adult day care and senior centers are opening in greater numbers. And services offering travel, transportation, recreation and entertainment will expand. Some churches, who have worried about their own viability, will find a ready congregation among older groups.
Those of us in that age group would do well to acknowledge the aging process, prepare for future years and do so with grace and a positive attitude. Alexander Chalmers, the 18th century doctor turned Scottish writer, offered a wonderful prescription. He said, “The three grand essentials of happiness are: Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.”
This formula is even more true for “the golden years.”