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How Older Adults Are Changing America

An aging population is shaking up our country. Why it’s happening and what it means

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Take a look around. We live in a country that is being transformed — in ways both obvious and hidden — by older Americans. Our growing numbers and enduring vitality ensure that this disruption will continue to roll through the American economy, culture, society and politics — penetrating deep into the very marrow of the nation. 

We the people, at midlife and beyond, represent the third-largest economy in the world, after China and the U.S. as a whole. But we are more than just consumers and wealth holders: We are workers, thinkers, influencers and innovators with the power to shape markets and exert pressure on corporations and elected leaders. 

And we must use that power to push for an America that is better prepared for our needs as we­­ — and those who follow us — journey through life to old age. That’s a good story, and it’s ongoing. From work and jobs to health care and leisure pursuits, things look the way they do because of your power.  And there’s more change — and a brighter future — coming for everyone. Let’s take a look at this phenomenon one sector at a time.

The Workplace

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Liam Eisenberg

Despite decades of rampant ageism in the workplace, the number of workers 65 and older has mushroomed by 117 percent in a span of 20 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Remarkably, employment of individuals 75 and older has increased by the same percentage.

And the trend is going strong. “I’m getting a lot of requests by employers to talk to their teams about how they can integrate older workers in their workforce,” says Janine Vanderburg, senior strategist for Changing the Narrative, a national campaign funded by the NextFifty Initiative to end ageism.  

Hiring older workers is not mere altruism: An estimated 10 million jobs in America are sitting unfilled. This has forced a change in recruitment to target those of all ages, Vanderburg says. Older workers’ preference for remote work, especially in retirement, is pushing employers to be more flexible about where work happens. There are also greater opportunities for part-time work. 

One company with an informal “phased retirement” program is the financial services firm Principal. Employees 57 and older with at least 10 years of service are able to transition from full-time to part-time jobs. Principal also has a “boomerang” program that allows former employees to return as part-timers. “We’re encouraging managers to engage with folks who are planning to retire and have a discussion about the parts of the job that the person really enjoys and what the needs of the company are,” says Jon Couture, Principal’s chief human resources officer.

Tax preparation firm Jackson Hewitt is increasingly hiring retirees from January through April. “We find that retirees are really great at being interactive with clients and showing empathy,” says Alicia Branon, Jackson Hewitt’s director of talent programs and attraction. 

Another trend is “returnships” — short-term employment programs intended to help ­people who have been out of the workforce ease their way back in. Trimble, a global industrial technology company, has partnered with the nonprofit Path Forward since 2020 to offer returnships. Most participants then get full-time jobs at Trimble, the company reports.

Finally, AARP continues to expand its Employer Pledge program, in which companies commit to equal consideration of all job applicants regardless of age. Last year, 568 additional companies with a total of 1.5 million employees signed the pledge, up from 477 new signers with 1.1 million workers in 2021.

— Richard Eisenberg

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Health Care

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Liam Eisenberg

Want to see what marketplace clout looks like? Thanks to the demands of an informed, health-conscious population of older Americans, it seems like nearly every purveyor of goods or services in the U.S. is also in the health business. 

At the local level, what restaurant, boutique, grocery, dry cleaner or lawn care service doesn’t cater in some way to the health and safety needs of its customers?  

And it’s even more true at the national level, where big names such as Amazon, Walmart and Target are making major investments in health services and products. Older Americans spend heavily on health care, as everyone knows. In fact, it’s the only broad spending category that keeps rising with people’s ages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2021, boomer households spent an ­average of $6,600 per year on health care, and older households spent $7,050; in contrast, millennials spent at least a third less.

“More than previous generations, older people today want to be as active and healthy as possible — and the retail industry is picking up on that,” says Rachel Bonsignore, vice president at the consumer research firm GfK Consumer Life. Among retailers’ giant investments in health care: In February, Amazon dropped nearly $4 billion to purchase the primary care chain One Medical, and it rolled out prescription drug and health care membership programs. 

Discount retailer Dollar General is piloting mobile health care units that roll up in front of stores for on-demand doctor appointments. This year, Walmart announced it would double the number of its Walmart Health in-store clinics in 2024. 

Drugstore chain CVS is also moving beyond the pharmacy counter. At the 1,100 MinuteClinics inside CVS stores, health care practitioners trained in “age-friendly” care have joined more than 3,000 hospitals, doctors’ offices and other sites in a growing movement that focuses on older adults’ medical needs and how best to treat them, according to Terry Fulmer, president of the John A. Hartford Foundation.

The foundation, along with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, has been working on an initiative to help older adults stay mobile, avoid risky medications, get care that matters to them, and receive help for dementia, depression and other mental health issues. 

And it’s moving beyond doctors’ offices and into the places where older adults increasingly turn for health care. CVS will spend $10.6 billion on Oak Street Health to expand the retailer’s reach in underserved communities. (AARP has a relationship with Oak Street Health.)

But the ultimate in health care convenience comes in home care that ­rivals the excellence of hospitals such as NYU Langone. It’s a trend that is picking up steam. Since last September, 200 mostly older residents of Long Island, New York, have received hospital-level treatment for pneumonia, asthma flare-ups and other medical problems in the comfort of their own home. 

“We take everything from the brick-and-mortar hospital — except the bed — and bring it home,” says Jonathan Kelly, an osteopathic physician and the medical director of NYU Langone Hospital-Long ​Island’s Home Hospital Program. “That includes nurses, physical therapists, supplemental oxygen, intravenous antibiotics, intensive wound care, meals planned by a dietitian if you need them, and more.” 

Nearly 300 hospital-at-home programs are running in the U.S., and by 2030, an estimated 1 in 6 American hospitals will offer them, Kelly notes.  

The scale of the home health care movement is huge. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates $265 billion in care for Medicare beneficiaries will be delivered at home by 2025. That’s clout.

— Lisa Lee Freeman and Sari Harrar 

Financial Services

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Liam Eisenberg

Last year, Americans held about $18 trillion in IRAs and 401(k) retirement accounts — more than triple the figure from 2005 — according to the Investment Company Institute. Households headed by people ages 65 to 74 held a median of $164,000 in retirement accounts in 2019, up from $60,000 (in inflation-adjusted dollars) in 1998, says the Federal Reserve. 

No wonder that America’s banks, investment firms and insurers are increasingly rolling out new goods and services tailored to boomers — designed to help them create a secure retirement by using the money they’ve amassed and protecting that wealth against theft and abuse.

“There are thousands of Americans retiring every day, and the financial services industry is taking steps to serve them,” says Scott Smith, director at research firm Cerulli Associates. One ­example of how money managers are tailoring their offerings to boomers is T. Rowe Price’s recent purchase of Retiree Inc., whose retirement income planning software and strategies are highly regarded in the industry.

Companies are developing more products designed especially for older customers. For example, because the prospect of guaranteed monthly income beyond a Social Security benefit is appealing to many retirees, product providers have been rolling out updated ­annuities, Smith says. Financial giant Fidelity will roll out its new Guaranteed Income Direct offering this year, allowing 401(k) plan participants to convert a portion of their savings into an immediate income annuity once they hit retirement. 

Another example is Citi’s partnership, announced last September, with Covr Financial Technologies, which creates one easy-to-use online marketplace to navigate different areas of coverage, such as life insurance and long-term care

The nature of financial advice is changing, too, with greater attention being paid to methodologies for drawing down wealth and making money last through retirement. One example of the ongoing research in this area is a June report from money manager BlackRock and the Bipartisan Policy Center, which argues that a strategy of buying an annuity and investing more aggressively in the market — along with delaying one’s claim for Social Security benefits — will increase retirement security. 

That’s a top priority for most older Americans: “Of 23 million households ages 60 to 69, 16 million have less than $250,000 in ­financial assets,” Smith says. “For these folks, most of their income likely will be ­Social Security — and hopefully a little ­wiggle room.”

The unpleasant truth, however, is that for many older Americans, there is not a lot of wiggle room in their budgets. Roughly 1 out of every 5 Americans 65 and older rely on Social Security for more than three-quarters of their income, according to the latest estimates from the Social Security Administration. Fourteen percent of older Americans rely on Social Security for more than 90 percent of their income, and 11 percent are living near or below the poverty line.

To help protect older Americans at all income levels, government agencies and financial regulators have initiated or strengthened efforts to stem their financial exploitation. 

In 2021, for example, the Consumer ­Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. issued an update of their anti-fraud educational program called “Money Smart for Older Adults.” A new rule from Wall Street’s Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) pushes brokers to have clients name “trusted contact persons.”

Listing a person to call if a broker has concerns about a client’s well-being is intended to help reduce elder abuse and fraud, which claimed 88,000 victims and cost $3.1 billion in 2022 alone. This adds to other safeguards, such as FINRA’s Rule 2165 on financial exploitation, which allows a hold to be placed on accounts suspected to be vulnerable to theft, such as those of customers 65 and older.

— Chris Taylor


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Liam Eisenberg

Remember the fitness revolution of the 1970s and ’80s? That’s ancient history now — was it only 50 years ago? Fitness has been transformed by a generation — or two — that refuses to accept the idea that exercise is just for kids. Older adults in 2023 are going out for organized sports in record numbers. This summer, more than 10,000 athletes ages 50 to 100 competed in the National Senior Games in Pittsburgh, up nearly five-fold since 1987. U.S. Masters Swimming has grown 46 percent since 2008, and the number of runners in their 70s signing up for U.S. races grew by 32 percent from 2019 to 2022. Here are other ways that older Americans are changing fitness.

  • America’s fastest-growing sport is pickleball, which was created by three dads as a game for the whole family and has “exploded across the country,” says Sue Hlavacek, interim president and CEO of the National Senior Games Association. The largest age group of frequent players (49 percent) is 55 and older, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The trend of older people getting more involved in sports will only grow, according to fitness expert Pamela Peeke, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who’s competed at the Senior Games. “People become adventurous over age 50,” she says. “They go out there and just rock and roll. They experiment, they learn new skills, and they get excited. And maybe they win a medal or two.”
  • Treadmills, elliptical trainers and weight machines designed for older exercisers are showing up in gyms and retirement community fitness centers. They’re easier to get on and off, have wheelchair-height seats and start more slowly. The National Academy of Sports Medicine and other groups certify personal trainers who are educated to work with older adults.  
  • And there’s been an explosion of fun, low-impact workout programs you can take at the gym or at home — from strength-building routines with very light weights to low-impact Zumba Gold classes to chair yoga and gentle yoga courses that won’t twist you up like a pretzel. “Today’s older adult wants options,” says Caroline Khalil, chief operating officer for Tivity Health, the company that offers SilverSneakers exercise classes for older adults, which launched 31 years ago. “They expect the same level of personalization and convenience in fitness that they get in a retail environment.” (AARP has workout videos and fitness tips at 

Here’s some good news from the research front: A few one- to two-minute bursts of higher-intensity activity a day — such as running after your grandkids — lowered the risk for fatal heart disease and cancer by up to 49 percent, according to a 2022 Australian study of more than 25,000 midlife and older non­exercisers. Just 11 minutes a day of brisk walking cut the risk for an early death by 23 percent and reduced the odds for cardiovascular disease by 17 percent, found a 2023 U.K. analysis of 196 studies involving more than 30 million people — including plenty of adults over 65.

U.S. exercise guidelines already acknowledge that older adults will benefit even by doing less than the recommended 150 minutes of movement per week — and that small amounts count. But the Australian researchers say future exercise guidelines should mention the merits of super short bursts of activity as a way to help nonexercisers, older and younger alike. “We are looking at fitness very differently now,” Peeke says. “There’s much greater meaning and purpose behind it for older adults. ... They want to climb to the Parthenon, chase after their grandchildren and live vital, robust lives.”

— Sari Harrar

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Liam Eisenberg

Instagram, TikTok and YouTube are filled with the exploits of young travel influencers who trot the globe while filming themselves in exotic locales. But that perception of the 20-something jet-setter is not reality for much of the travel industry. AARP’s “2023 Travel Trends” study found that Americans 60 to 69 years old are the biggest travel spenders, planning to lay out $7,300 on average this year, compared with about 30 percent less for travelers ages 18 to 49. Travelers 50-plus will average four trips this year. 

“For older travelers, spending is up in a way that makes it hard for the travel industry to ignore,” says Patty David, vice president of consumer insights at AARP.  

A 2007 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman helped to popularize the term “bucket list” — meaning experiences people seek to accomplish as they age. Such lists have only gotten more popular: According to the AARP study, 63 percent of American travelers age 50-plus have bucket-list trips, and their commitment to visit such places has increased since the pandemic. “The bucket list is universal, and the travel ­industry now caters to once-in-a-lifetime-destination seekers, whether that’s for an Alaskan cruise, an African safari or an adventure in Antarctica,” says travel adviser Debbie Bush, 75, president of Avenue Two Travel.

A good example of the bucket-list travel boom can be seen in the Smithsonian Journeys travel program, which mostly serves travelers 50 and older seeking high-end experiences. More than four decades ago, it offered a half dozen trips per year. Today, Smithsonian Journeys oversees more than 350 annual departures on all seven continents. 

“As long as they’re able, boomers will want to travel in interesting and authentic ways,” says former director Amy Kotkin. She helped introduce several changes because of demand from older travelers — smaller group sizes, subgroups within a trip to accommodate different interests and abilities, and more active travel for older people. Another change that started with boomers: “whisper sets,” the audio headsets that allow groups to hear better on guided outings. “Now it’s an expectation on tours, regardless of age,” Kotkin says. 

And there’s the rise of multigenerational family vacations. “Family trips don’t just mean Mom, Dad and the kids anymore,” says Jason de Vries, resort manager at Four Seasons ­Resort Oahu at Ko Olina in Hawai‘i. “Now grandparents want to come along and sit by the pool, the adults may want to play pickleball, and the grandkids are interested in skateboarding — then they all have meals together.” 

Older travelers and multigenerational sailings are also driving the cruise industry. “A great advantage of multi-gen groups on a cruise is that it’s fairly turnkey,” says Wes Rowland, president of the Cruise Experts Agency. “On a cruise, the meals are planned, activities are tailored to everyone within the group, and you can be together as much as you want to — and apart as much as you need to.”

— David Hochman


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Liam Eisenberg

Blockbuster movies are no ­longer just for teens, and AARP is allowed to take a bow. A Comscore box office study commissioned by the association found older audiences have returned to movie theaters at rates outpacing those from even before the pandemic. Older moviegoers helped push several films to strong grosses, says Heather Nawrocki, vice president of AARP’s Movies for Grownups program. Tops among them were Top Gun: Maverick, with nearly 40 percent of its audience 45 or older, and Elvis, with 45 percent age 45 and up. The success this year of films such as 80 for Brady ($40 million gross against a $28 million budget), A Man Called Otto and Sound of Freedom (half of the audience was over 45, Variety says) shows that older audiences “will continue to see movies in theaters and support filmmakers and studios that connect directly with their interests,” Nawrocki says.

Who’s starring in these flicks? Of the top 20 actors most reliably drawing audiences to theaters, only one is under 50 (and that youngster, Chris Hemsworth, is 40). 

Tom Cruise is 61, Tom Hanks is 67, Denzel Washington is 68, Morgan Freeman is 86, and so on. “If we’re talking about actors who can ‘carry’ a movie today, we’re looking at people 55, 60 and up,” says Matthew Belloni, host of the show business podcast The Town. “And you’re targeting older audiences, too, because they’re the people still buying movie tickets.”

In music, the legacy acts are still big-time. With nearly a billion dollars in ticket sales, ­Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour is the highest-grossing concert tour in history. The beat goes on. After setting records with his one-man Broadway show and selling his music catalog for an estimated $550 million, Bruce Springsteen, 73, this year packed North American stadiums on a tour that saw tickets selling for as high as $5,000.

Billy Joel, 74, may be ending his New York residency at Madison Square Garden after filling 1.6 million seats, but Las Vegas is loaded with long-range stints by older artists such as Sting, Garth Brooks, Barry Manilow, Santana, Donny Osmond and Rod Stewart. In 2023’s music business, “these ­aren’t oldies acts; they’re the main acts,” says Panos A. Panay, president of the Recording Academy, which presents the Grammy Awards. “To a music executive, it’s called predictable cash flow.”  

Back in the living room, it’s the same picture: The Wall Street Journal reported that people over 50 accounted for 39 percent of streaming watch time as of May 2022, up from 35 percent a year earlier. 

That older ­audience now drives what we see, whether it’s upcoming network programs including The Golden Bachelor, a ­senior version of ABC’s reality dating series, or streaming hits such as Only Murders in ​the Building, The Crown and Hacks. “When you have a show like The Diplomat, with two-thirds of the audience over 50 and one-third over 65,” says Brian Fuhrer of Nielsen Global Media, “you can bet TV ­studios are planning more shows for this aging part of the demographic.” 

— D.H.

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Liam Eisenberg

One place you can literally count the impact of older Americans is politics, where in 2022, older voters proved to be the ­“deciders” in U.S. elections. AARP’s postelection survey found that 61 percent of ballots cast in the 63 closest races for the U.S. House of Representatives were by voters 50-plus. Those older voters are growing impatient on a range of issues.  

Last year, Congress passed, and President Joe Biden signed, the Inflation Reduction Act, which allowed Medicare to negotiate with drugmakers on prices for some of the most expensive drugs. The act also put a $2,000 limit on ­annual out-of-pocket prescription drug costs (starting in 2025) and capped the price of insulin at $35 per month for Medicare enrollees. Soaring drug prices are “a kitchen-table budget issue,” says Nancy LeaMond, chief advocacy and engagement officer at AARP. 

Some advocates say the federal government needs to be more aggressive in funding programs to help aging boomers. “Congress and the administration are making progress in addressing issues such as more support for family caregivers,” says Brenda Sulick, chief advocacy and engagement officer with the National Council on Aging (NCOA). “But these policies are not moving fast enough.”

At the state level, lawmakers are starting to respond to pressure from older voters on ­issues such as brain health. The result is a thousand-points-of-light effect across the country. For example, the state of Georgia, working with Atlanta’s Emory University, has created a team of memory care specialists to better assess individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. 

Two dozen states are developing strategies to address the needs of their older residents, according to the nonprofit SCAN Foundation. “We are in a crisis” in preparing for the aging population nationwide, says Sarita Mohanty, its president and CEO. “We are at a pivotal point, where we are behind and we have to go at a faster pace.”

Never known for their fast pace, federal regulatory agencies are making some progress. In September 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released its first National Strategy to Support Family Caregivers, which includes nearly 350 actions the federal government will take to assist these caregivers. 

The strategy encourages states to raise funding for the programs, but it doesn’t require it. Critics say it’s not enough. “When it comes to the high cost of long-term care, older adults and their families are already in crisis,” says the NCOA’s Sulick. 

Finally, AARP is bringing about tangible change at the local level. AARP Livable Communities has given out more than 1,300 grants worth $16.3 million to help communities launch, promote and fund projects to aid  their aging residents.

— Mindy Fetterman

Richard Eisenberg is an “unretired” journalist who writes The View From Unretirement column for MarketWatch. 

Lisa Lee Freeman was founder and editor of ShopSmart magazine from Consumer Reports. 

Sari Harrar is an award-winning reporter and contributing editor to AARP publications who writes on health, public policy and other topics. 

Chris Taylor is a senior correspondent with Reuters who covers personal finance and workplace issues. ​

David Hochman, a contributing editor for AARP The Magazine, has written cover stories on the pandemic and on climate change for the AARP Bulletin. ​

Mindy Fetterman, a former writer and editor for USA Today, writes for AARP The Magazine, Stateline and other publications.

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