Conclusion: Is the Third Age the Crown of Life?

By Wink, Paul; James, Jacquelyn Boone | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Conclusion: Is the Third Age the Crown of Life?


Wink, Paul, James, Jacquelyn Boone, Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


In this concluding chapter we first draw together the findings from the chapters in this volume, integrating and highlighting themes. We then evaluate the status of the Third Age and consider whether or not it refers to a new life stage. We end with a brief discussion of broader implications of our findings.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?

Age Characteristics

At least since 1950, Americans age 25 or older have had a more than 50-50 chance of surviving until age 65 (Sorensen). What has changed in the new millennium is that the number of adults reaching the age of 65 has increased to eight in ten and, of greater import, of those who reach the age of 65, close to two-thirds will live right through the Third Age, defined by this volume as ages 65-79, and reach the age of 80. In this regard, living to old age is becoming a normative expectation, without the aura of survivorship it carried years ago.

Of course, longevity does vary by gender (Sorensen) and race (Brown, Jackson, & Faison), with women and Whites living longer than do men and Blacks. As documented by Sorensen, the gender difference in the rate of survivorship becomes more pronounced with age. Whereas at the beginning of the Third Age (age 65-69), the ratio of men to women is nine to ten, this number drops to less than seven in ten by the end of the Third age (age 75-79) and decreases even more dramatically after age 85, when there are only approximately 4 men to every 10 women. These gender differences in longevity have important implications because, as is discussed below, the rates of poverty and ill health are higher among women than among men.

Despite the fact that more Americans live to old age, as a result of post-World War II birth rates, the relative proportion of adult Americans who are in the Third Age has not changed significantly from 1950 (12% of the adult population) to 2000 (14%). This state of affairs is going to alter radically as the twenty-first century progresses, with an estimated one-fifth (21%) of adult Americans being age 65-79 by the year 2030, and almost a third being age 55 and older (Sorensen). In other words, during the next 25 years, as the baby boomers retire, the number of adult Americans in the Third Age will increase by a third. These basic demographic statistics have obviously serious policy implications that we discuss later in this chapter.

Finances

As a group, Third Age individuals are financially well off and, as reported by Grafova, McGonagle, and Stafford in this volume, current Third Agers are wealthier than same-age Americans a generation ago. This trend is likely to continue when the baby boomers reach retirement age because, contrary to popular belief, baby boomers have accumulated more wealth than have prior generations. Equally surprising is the low poverty rate among individuals aged 65 and over, with less than 10% of men and just over 10% of women falling into the poor or very poor category. As argued by Sorensen, the fact that there are fewer poor elderly than in any other age category, including children, is attributable to Social security, which contributes on average close to 50% of income among Third Age men and, by age 75-79, constitutes two-thirds of women's income.

Although the current generation of Third Age Americans is financially well off, reasons exist for concern for future Third Agers. Compared to the 1980s, fewer current Third Age individuals own their homes outright, and this trend is likely to continue. The presence of a growing personal debt combined with escalating health costs, substantial cuts in retirement programs in the private sector of the economy, and increased longevity pose a threat to the financial security in the years to come. In fact, current Third Age adults are said to be in the "golden age" of retirement income (Munnell & Soto, 2005).

The matter of financial well-being is made more complicated by considering its connection to physical well-being, both for Third Agers and those in their care. …

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