Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=63015
Story Retrieval Date: 5/18/2013 1:27:03 AM CST
What will we be like when we’re old and gray? Will we become more conservative, more absentminded, more unhappy? Panelist William Butz, who worked as an associate director of the U.S. Census Bureau before joining the Population Reference Bureau, is considered an expert on the subject. Butz discussed six aspects of getting older- nutrition, political issues, attitudes on aging, savings attitudes, decision making and happiness-- and painted a picture of the average senior citizen for the audience Tuesday. Some of the his observations:
• Just like elderly residents of developing countries, American senior citizens are more at risk for under-nourished than over-nourished. As you get older, Butz cautioned, make sure to eat enough to offset the natural thinning process that happens to older people.
• Our political views don’t change as we get older, they just become more ingrained, contradicting the popular myth that people become more conservative with time. So if you’re a lifelong liberal, you can expect to become even more left-wing in old age. As an interesting side note, self-interest typically doesn’t have a large impact on people’s political decisions, so Butz said countries don’t need to worry that voting priorities will shift as residents get older.
• Older people tend to be less concerned with bad news, Butz said, meaning that older residents will still need an impassioned younger part of the country to identify social problems.
• Finally, what makes older people happy? It’s not money, according to current research. Most elderly people stated that their incomes did not factor into their overall happiness. So what’s the key to happiness, then? When asked by an audience member, Butz deadpanned, "Candy."
WASHINGTON-- Americans may not want to look in the mirror and admit it, but we’re getting old.
Even though the rest of the world may think of us as sassy, Facebook-obsessed overgrown kids, Americans are old-timers compared to most other countries. In 2005, 42 percent of Americans were under 30 and 17 percent were 60 or older. That makes the U.S. one of the world’s most mature countries, and also may explain why it’s one of the most politically stable, according to a new study.
Countries fall into one of four age categories in the study, completed over two years by non-profit group Population Action International. Using data gathered from the past 30 years, the study classified countries as very young, youthful, transitional or mature. In very young countries, at least two out of three residents are less than 30 years old. By contrast, the majority of residents in mature countries are between 30 and 59.
Things get interesting when comparing the age structure of a country to its political well-being. Almost 90 percent of very young countries, most of which are in Africa, have weak democratic governments, or autocratic systems., while 80 percent of mature countries have stable democracies. What’s more, 80 percent of civil conflicts over the past 30 years took place in very young countries.
During a panel discussion Tuesday, the study’s lead researcher, Elizabeth Leahy, said that countries’ age structures aren’t set in stone.
“Demography is not destiny,” she said. “Countries can change their fate.”
That idea already has congressmen champing at the bit to reshape assistance programs in developing parts of the world.
Both Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., and Jordan Press, aide to Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., were on hand Tuesday’s to talk about family planning initiatives, reproductive health care and education for women in developing countries. The goal is to help more children live into adulthood and beyond.
The study isn’t just about developing countries, either. Age structure could become very real to Americans in the next couple of decades if the U.S. morphs into a fifth country type: “aged.” Leahy predicted that could happen by 2025
In an aged country, the nagging question of financing Social Security would loom even more fiercely over young Americans. Americans in their 20s and 30s face a shrinking pool of Social Security funds as Baby Boomers move into retirement.
“Certainly, I think there are some lessons there for Americans,” Carnahan said.
Not everyone is buying into the idea that social problems have a significant connection to age. One man in the audience challenged the age structure theory, suggesting that resource scarcity can stunt the growth of developing countries just as much as a young population.
Still, panelist William Butz, president of the Population Reference Bureau, “this report places the burden of proof on other researchers who say that age structure is not the cause,” he said.
So even though Americans might not want to be called old, being mature can have its benefits.