Census finds 1 in 8 Americans are seniors – an all-time high

Newly released 2010 Census figures show that seniors make up a larger share of the American population than ever before. The trend will only gain steam in the years ahead.

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    Members of the Henderson County Senior Softball League sit together on Nov. 18 at Jackson Park in Hendersonville, N.C.
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Senior citizens now represent a larger share of the US population than they have at any point in the nation's history, and with the first baby boomers hitting 65 this year, the trend is likely only to accelerate in the years ahead.

On April 1, 2010, some 40.3 million people age 65 and older lived in the United States – 13 percent of the total national population, according to a new brief by the Census Bureau. In 1900, by contrast, seniors made up only 4.1 percent of the US population. 

Moreover, between 2000 and 2010, the number of senior citizens grew 15.1 percent, while the total US population grew 9.7 percent. That's a reversal of what happened between 1990 and 2000, when the growth of the older population was slower than the growth rate for the US population as a whole. 

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One factor bolstering the growth of seniors is the increased longevity of American men. In 2000, there were 70 men for every 100 women age 65 and over. In 2010, that number had risen to 76 men per 100 women. 

The group of Americans age 85 to 94 also grew rapidly – from 3.9 million in 2000 to 5.1 million in 2010. 

The graying of America will have a profound impact on the country, says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institute in Washington.

“The fact that they’re growing so rapidly and people are living longer brings up all kinds of issues of how we’re going to deal with our older population in the future,” Mr. Frey says. “It’s kind of a ticking time bomb; 20 years down the road they’re going to have other needs to be taken care of.” 

The 65- to 69-year-old age group is expected to grow most rapidly in the years ahead as more baby boomers hit that threshold. Over time, that could create serious financial stresses. 

“What we’ve been predicting is now coming to pass,” says Alicia Munnel, the director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “We’ve had this confluence of the aging baby boomers with the financial collapse, and this group is going to be drawing on their savings, their pensions, and their Social Security and Medicare, which means those systems will be under pressure.”

In the years ahead, aging baby boomers will sharpen competition for America's resources.

“Even if they’re a positive economic force, the baby boomers will still have different kinds of needs than the younger population does," says Frey. "That dichotomy may bring up contentious issues in elections: Should resources go toward schools and affordable housing for younger people or should it go toward senior services?”

Geographically, seniors are most heavily concentrated in the South, where 14.9 million people 65 and older live. The Midwest, which comes in second, has only 9 million.

Among states, Florida ranks No. 1 in concentration of seniors. Some 17.3 percent of Floridians are 65 and over. 

“We are seeing a permanent shift of people moving to warmer climates, especially in the older population,” said Carrie Werner, a statistician in the Age and Special Populations branch at the US Census Bureau.

Other states with high senior populations were West Virginia (16 percent), Maine (15.9 percent), Pennsylvania (15.4 percent), and Iowa (14.9 percent).

The West had the fastest growth of seniors, with the 65-and-older population increasing from 6.9 million to 8.5 million. 

No matter where the seniors are, the time to prepare for the future is now, experts say.

“More than anything, what this headlines is that we’re having an enormous number of people entering retirement," says Ms. Munnel. “If they’re not provided for, we’re going to have hordes of people with inadequate resources, which begs the question, will they be able to live adequately? It’s a complicated time.”

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