040617 Economy: An aging population becomes an opportunity
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Jim Johnson with Geales Sands of the Bunnelle Foundation.
Tanya Ackerman/Coastal Observer

Economy: An aging population becomes an opportunity

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

The tsunami is coming.

Dr. Jim Johnson from the Urban Investment Strategy Center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill urged residents and business leaders at a Chamber of Commerce program this week to be aware of trends influencing the economy in the region. He called his talk “Six disruptive demographics that will change the U.S. and South Carolina forever.”

One of those demographics is the wave. The tsunami is silver and refers to the aging population of America. Johnson specifically recognizes the Baby Boomer generation, those born between 1946-1964, as one of the disruptive demographics. “There’s 81 million of us and we’re turning 65 to the tune of 8,000 per day,” Johnson, 63, said. “That’s going to happen every day, seven days per week, 365 days per year, for the next 20 years.”

The trend of an aging population is apparent in the county. A report funded by the Bunnelle Foundation found the average workforce age in Georgetown County is 47 years old whereas the United States reports an average workforce age of 37. It also reports a low population growth for the area since young people who grew up here tend to not return after they leave for college.

“We sort of stay around 60,000,” Geales Sands, executive director of the Bunnelle Foundation, said. “We have a diminishing number of 18 to 44 year olds and a growing number of folks 55 and above.”

When the government created Social Security in 1935, the average person turning 65 lived 12 more years. Now the life expectancy following 65 is almost 19 more years. This raises questions about the sustainability of the system, Johnson said. A person who relies solely on Social Security, can’t afford to live in a skilled nursing facility.

For some Boomers, the thought of elder care occurs only when they must take care of a loved one or parent, but it’s fast becoming a concern for the children or caregivers of the Greatest Generation.

“People my age, Baby Boomers, we all think we’re immortal,” Sands said. “We think we’re not going to need that stuff. Until we need it.”

The need is there. Typically when the senior population is referenced it means the young old, 65-74, the middle old, 75-84 and the eldest 85 and older. The 85 and older demographic is the fastest growing population in the country. So think of the aging population as economic opportunity instead of hardship, Johnson said.

“The really big thing, particularly in this area, is making the place senior friendly,” he said. “If you focus on age-friendliness, this is how you create jobs and new business opportunities.”

Age-friendliness is not just building for the elderly, it’s equal opportunity access for everybody. For example, pedestrian crossing signals assume a person crossing the street walks 4 feet per second. The average senior walks 2 to 3 feet per second, but so does the woman with a baby carriage, Johnson said.

“I think that’s a news flash for a lot of us,” Sands said. “That business as usual isn’t working and we need to lean into our demographic picture.”

It can be as simple as changing the timing for a crosswalk, or as complex as new construction with intelligent design. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a starting point. Places that offer world class, accessible health care and homes that people can live in at any point in their lives are going to be on the most attractive places to live and work.

“It’s about maximizing the ability for people to move fluidly through life,” Johnson said. “It’s keeping people out of skilled nursing facilities.”

Larry Mercado, chamber and Bunnelle board member, would like to see the county shift away from manufacturing and move toward technology to attract younger generations. “I think we can do stuff to make it better for entrepreneurs coming in,” he said.

When the tsunami hits, will we be ready? Solving age-related problems of our own population could be a priority. It would be nice to be on the crest of the wave, Sands said.

Johnson “points out our challenge is also our opportunity,” Sands said. “We need to figure out how we turn our aging population into our opportunity.”

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