While Other Nations Fear The “Silver Tsunami,” The Golden State Should Learn To Surf The Coming Aging Wave

Greg Lucas

California State Librarian


It’s time to finally ditch the “Silver Tsunami” label about longevity.  By 2020 one in five Californians—about 8 million residents of America’s nation-state—will be aged sixty years or older.  That ratio will climb to one in four by 2030.

But it’s not like some huge wave of gray-headed folk is going to inundate Fresno. Having more people hang around longer with more experience, more know-how, more desire, and more capacity to give back to their communities does not make a cataclysm.

In the aggregate, it sounds like the equivalent of a pleasant afternoon in a public library.

So to begin this reframing, let’s pat ourselves on the back for a pretty astounding success story: in roughly 150 years, humankind has doubled its lifespan. Kids born today have a pretty decent shot of hitting triple-digit ages.

At the same time our life spans are lengthening, younger men and women are having fewer children and, presto! the over sixty crowd ratchets rapidly up to being a larger share of the population.

This is not just a California phenomenon. Nor is it a several decades-long aberration, a blip on civilization’s millennia long march. Having more people live longer is going to be part of the package deal on this planet for the foreseeable future.

The percentages of older citizens to younger is going to be even more pronounced in Japan and Europe, where there is significantly more hand-wringing and teeth gnashing by policy makers over the potential collapse of already sagging social service networks and retirement systems. Longevity is coming to India, Brazil, and other emergent economic powers.

This of course is not news. Numerous individuals, economists, think tanks, pollsters, and government agencies have been talking about this sharp growth in the world’s elders for more than fifteen years.

One of the most articulate voices is Laura Carstensen, executive director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

“We need to be reflecting on what an ideal century-long life would look like. What would be needed from employers, private-sector changes, state and federal policy changes, education,” Carstensen said in an interview. “Instead we’re talking tsunami and bracing for some imagined fall instead of building an infrastructure.”

As Carstensen suggests there’s been little sustained or coherent effort made by California decision makers to prepare for this eventuality that will fundamentally change how we share our cities, highways, and homes. It’s particularly odd, given that Californians over fifty generate 42 percent of the state’s gross domestic product:  a little more than $1 trillion, according to a 2015 Oxford Economic study commissioned by the American Association of Retired Persons on the impact of a “longevity economy.”

The California Department of Aging is circulating a draft of its four-year California State Plan on Aging (here’s the department’s 2009–13 blueprint). The current plan, which must be created to obtain federal funding, offers broad goals such as “make information on health and supportive services accessible to older adults” but few specific policy changes to help California create as many positive outcomes for the already occurring graying of our population.

Among the desirable positive outcomes California should be taking steps to achieve is making it easier for seniors to stay working, at least part-time, and stay in their homes, which something like 90 percent of seniors say they want to do. Among other advantages, older Californians living at home makes it cheaper to meet their health care needs for all the obvious reasons.

Californians also should be able to come back to universities at different times in their life, volunteer at all ages, have shorter workweeks to accommodate longer working lives.

Like the homeless, California’s over sixty population is anything but homogeneous, so determining the most productive public policy moves requires a close look at who our seniors are. The Department of Aging draft plan offers some answers.

Of California’s older adults

  • 23 percent have limited English proficiency
  • 25 percent live alone
  • 72 percent are women age sixty or more, living alone
  • 30 percent have a disability
  • 82 percent have a high school degree or better

Two-thirds of California’s seniors currently live in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. But growth in the number of older Californians in the Central Valley and Inland Empire is expected to climb by nearly 120 percent during the next thirteen years.

As of 2016 more than 16 percent of California’s elderly live below the poverty level. Nearly 21 percent are poor or near poor. The federal poverty level in 2017 is $12,060 for a single person and $16,240 for a household of two. “Poor or near poor” maxes out at 149 percent of poverty: about $24,200 for a household of two and $18,000 for one person.

If those percentages hold into 2020, which is likely, nearly 3 million of the 8 million Californians over sixty will be trying to survive on a maximum annual income of $18,000 if they’re alone and $24,200 if their spouse or partner lives with them.

RentCafe notes that as of May 2017 the average monthly nut for a 512-square-foot studio apartment in Palo Alto is $2,341,  up 9 percent from 2016.

Approximately 1.6 million of California’s older adult population is foreign born, the Department of Aging says.

In an August 2015 study, the Public Policy Institute of California founds that by 2030 Golden State seniors will be 43 percent white, 26 percent Latino, 16 percent Asian American, and 5 percent African American.

Latino and Asian American families are more likely to have multigenerational households. When new housing is built, does some percentage facilitate those kinds of living arrangements?

Although California’s sixty-plus population is diverse, some improvements benefit all.  Our cities must livable and navigable for persons with mobility issues or reliance on transit. Something as mundane as a cracked, uneven sidewalk can put someone of any age at risk.

Many of California’s public institutions were grandfathered in under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Bringing just one restroom into an urban or suburban public building can cost $250,000. Is there a loan program or financing mechanism to help?

If people are living until they’re ninety and beyond doesn’t retirement have to be redefined? Of course it does.

But the best thing California can do right now is to take Carstensen’s advice and view this new phase of human growth as an opportunity. Make it easier for our elders to do what they want anyway: give back and be valued.

As is often the case, this is happening in various areas through the state without government incentive or penalty.

Members of California’s community’s age zero to a hundred are already learning and living with one another. Seniors are volunteers, literacy tutors, homework helpers, and maker space monitors.

Don’t believe me? Go spend a pleasant afternoon at a public library.

Originally published in the Hoover Institution’s Eureka.

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