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Monday, May 19, 2014 - 5:42am

Aging Nation Has Its Upsides

Gerontologist Alexis Abramson has a piece of advice about aging. Her motto is, ‘don't forget about the bright side.’

"You can have 30 years of life when you retire," she said on GPB's On The Story . "What do you want to do with all that time? What have you never been able to do? What are your passions?"

Her advice comes on the heels of a new U.S. Census report that shows America is a rapidly aging nation. The number of people older than 65 is expected to skyrocket from the current 43 million, to almost 84 million in 2050. At that point, more than one in every five Americans will be over 65.

At the same time, the nation's main social programs for retirees are not even close to keeping up. Social Security is expected to run out of money to pay for the current-level benefits when its trust fund depletes in 2033. After that, the benefits are expected to drop by 25 percent. Medicare is expected to face a similar problem even earlier, in 2026.

"The idea of retiring at 65 is just not realistic anymore," said Elisabeth Burgess, the Director of Gerontology Institute at Georgia State University, who also appeared on On The Story. "We could end up having 35 years of life after we turn 65. You can't have 35 years of retirement and fund it. You can't expect the working-age population to support people for 30-35 years."

Georgia is currently the 5th youngest state in the nation, but that's rapidly changing. There are already more than one million retirees in the state, and their number is expected to jump 142 percent between 2000 and 2030.

The rapid spike in the retiree population is attributed to a longer life span and lower birth rates. In addition, the nation’s 76 million baby boomers started retiring in 2011 and they are expected to create a “retirement bubble” that will persist until 2030. About 10,000 baby boomers reach the retirement age every day.

But despite this gloomy outlook, experts told GPB that the nation getting older also has its upsides.

First, the longer life expectancy means we can spend many extra years with our older relatives.

“We have this shared life with our parents and grandparents,” said Elisabeth Burgess. “Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation did not get to have that.”

Second, when people are healthier and live longer, they are more likely to be able to take care of other relatives. That can solve some of the problems related to elderly care, which is a major problem for many families.

“You have all those baby boomers who became personal caregivers for family members,” said Alexis Abramson. “You have 30-year-olds taking care of 50-year-olds, talking care of 70-year-olds, taking care of 90-year-olds.”

Abramson also said there is a growing trend for retirees to start a business after they retire from their full-time jobs. However, they don’t do that for money. It’s usually a passion that they had for a long time, but didn’t have time to pursue until they retired.

“Someone may have been interested in photography, but never had a chance to work on it,” said Abramson. “So when she retires, she opens a photography shop.”

Abramson said there are organizations that specialize in helping people start their businesses when they retire from full-time jobs. She also said some large companies are increasingly creating advisory boards that include their retired employees, whose experience is still valuable in business.

New technology may also play a role in retirement in the future. Futurologist Derek Woodgate, who started The Futures Lab company that predicts future trends for business clients, said the virtual reality may open a whole new world to some retirees.

“For many baby boomers who were not able to climb the Mount Everest, we have virtual adventure today,” he said on GPB. “We are using not only 3-D worlds, but we have a whole new area of augmented reality, where we can do things that generations before could not do.”

Despite the rapid growth in the retiree population, the U.S. is actually a younger nation that most other industrialized countries. Many Asian and European countries have a much bigger portion of their population in retirement. In Japan, the world’s oldest major industrialized nation, 40% of the entire population is expected to be over 65 in 2050. That’s almost twice as high as what’s expected in the U.S.

The U.S. Census attributed America’s relative youth to immigration. Most immigrants who come to the U.S. are relatively young, which lowers the average age for the entire nation. They also increase the pool of active workers who support the retirees.

Americans are not only among the youngest in the industrialized world, but also among the least worried about aging. The Pew Research Center said that 87 percent of Japanese and 55 percent of Germans think their nation getting older is a major problem.

By comparison, only 26 percent of Americans agree with that.