RENO, NEVADA – In the past decade, Elna Tymes notes, the face of America changed quite a bit – and not just because of the recession that started toward the end of the decade, around 2008.
When the 2010 Census figures we released, they revealed some interesting demographic changes that had happened in the United States between 2000 and 2010, indicating that this nation is moving in unique directions, different from any past trends.
And one of the long term implications, she added, looks particularly ominous.
Because while some demographers focus on the shifting minority population in the United States – particularly the fast-growing Latino and Asian immigrant groups coming here – and what impact that shift might have on American culture, Tymes sees a very different, even more significant statistic in the Census: Americans are getting older. They can now live to ages that earlier generations simply couldn’t reach.
Statistics indicate that the two leading causes of death today are cancer and heart disease, she said. But those illnesses are not killing people at the same rate as in previous decades.
And that fact, she said, has huge implications, particularly for the American economy and this nation’s way of life, as the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age.
“We are getting older, and there are a couple of reasons for that,” she said. The feds have thrown a lot of money at the things that used to kill us, so we are living longer.”
Likewise, efforts to convince Americans that smoking is a deadly habit have also worked, and the percentage of smokers continues to go down.
“The efforts against smoking have paid off,” she said.
Seniors living longer, but still requiring costly medical care, represents a huge economic challenge to the United States moving forward, she said.
“As seniors get old, they tend to become infirm and the need care,” she said, but added that the United States does not appear ready to figure out how to pay for that kind of long term care.
It could end up, she said, with families, not the government, shouldering that burden — meaning there will be not enough money to put aging seniors in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Many of them, she added, will have to be cared for at home, by their children and grandchildren.
“More and more of these people who need help will be staying home,” she said. “What is now paid health care is more likely to become family care.”
Tymes, who lives in San Francisco, does research into gerontology and is a member of San Francisco Regional Mensa, a chapter of the organization American Mensa. On Friday, she talked about the demographic changes that have surfaced since the 2010 census, and what the implications are for the future, during American Mensa’s 2012 Annual Gathering, held at the Silver Legacy hotel in Reno, Nevada.
One of the most interesting changes, she said, is the rising senior population.
“The percentage of seniors in the population will grow – and seniors cost more, particularly in terms of health care,” she said.
But a growing senior population has implications that go beyond just rising health care costs, she said. Tymes also noted that as people age, they stop doing something very critical to the U.S. economy.
“What does this mean in terms of the impact on the economy?” she asked. “Although seniors pay taxes, they don’t buy as much as the younger generation. They don’t buy houses. They don’t buy new cars. They don’t spend money on the kind of entertainment venues that younger people do. Their spending patterns are different.”
That means less money pumped into our consumer-oriented society, she said – a pattern that’s already started since the recession set in.
“Seniors tend not to work,” she said. “They live off their retirement incomes. In the past few years, well over half of seniors lost up to one-third of their retirement portfolios, so they have even less to spend now.”
The other likely outcome, she said, is that it will mean more people voting – so seniors will become a highly courted demographic group by both major political parties.
“They don’t tend to be any more Democrat or Republican or Libertarian than the population in general,” Tymes said. “But they get out and vote in droves, more so than any other population.”
Another major change in the past decade, she said, has been the nation’s rising immigrant population. Today, 70 percent of the U.S. population is white, according to the 2010 Census – but that percentage is going down.
“Whites are still a majority, and they will remain that way for another decade or two,” Tymes said. “After that it will depend on net migration. We are having a larger and larger portion of our population coming from immigrants. We’re still a popular place for immigrants. ”
The fastest growing immigrant and ethnic group, she said, is not Latinos.
“There are more immigrants coming here from Asia than from Mexico or Central America,” she said. “In California, Asians are growing faster than Latinos.”
The reason, she said, is because American businesses are actively trying to recruit very high skilled workers that they can’t find here in the United States, and nations like China and India have the trained workers they need.
“There is a shortage of people who have the skills needed to fill the jobs in Silicon Valley,” she said of California’s high tech corridor. “We are not producing enough graduates in computer science that they need.”
This will mean a less culturally homogenous society in decades to come, she said. Tymes noted a cruise ship tour director recently told her that when they sail internationally, the ship’s workers have a special task.
“They have to learn what gestures are offensive in different cultures,” she said. “We’re going to have to become more sensitive to these cultures. It means we’re going to have more multicultural experiences, more requests that we understand the needs of different cultures.”
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