David Byrne, American singer and songwriter, 61.
David Byrne, American singer and songwriter, 61, is part of this current population of American adults coming into retirement age. (Photo: Courtesy

The aging of the population is one of the greatest demographic and social transformations in American history.

Each day, nearly 9,400 people in America turn 65. As late as 1790, only 20 percent of Americans lived to age 70. Today more than 80 percent can expect to do so. At the dawn of this century, the average lifespan of an American was 49 years. At present, it has extended to 75 years and it appears likely to keep extending.

The Longevity Revolution

To capture the significance of these changes Pulitzer-Prize winning author Dr. Robert Butler coined the phrase “Longevity Revolution.”

In the following clip, Dr. Butler and Linda Gibbs, NYC’s Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, discuss the demographic and how older adults are not just a population ‘to be served’ but who make major contributions to communities, cities and society. The clip contains highlights from a discussion on the topic hosted by Demos and The Century Foundation in 2009. (The segment detailed here ends at 2:39.)

The Elder Boom

Increased longevity is only one part of the bio-demographic changes affecting social and economic life. The so-called “elder boom” has just begun. Older people comprise approximately 13 percent of our population today, but by the middle of the new century, more than 20 percent of the American population will be over 65, and 5 percent will be over 85. In some regions and states the proportions will be even greater.

Why is this happening?

The reasons for these changes are many, but most scholars point to three primary factors:

  1. advances in medicine and medical technology;
  2. improvements in nutrition and public health over the course of the twentieth century; and
  3. increased understanding of the behavioral and environmental factors affecting health outcomes for older adults.

What does it mean for libraries?

Whatever the reasons, the life span is profoundly different today from what we understood it to be even a few decades ago. For libraries that are dedicated to enhancing the quality of life and learning, there are professional, institutional and service implications from the trend towards longer, healthier life spans.

Further Reading:

Age and Sex – The Older Population in the United States: 2011 – People and Households – U.S. Census Bureau. (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2013, from
Butler, R.N. (2008). The longevity revolution: The benefits and challenges of living a long life. New York: Public Affairs.
Changes in US population coming sooner than expected. (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2013, from
Marshall, J. G., & Marshall, V. (2010). New patterns of aging: Implications for libraries and cultural institutions. In P. Rothstein & D.D. Schull (Eds.), Boomers and beyond: Reconsidering the role of libraries (3-14). Chicago: American Library Association.

PRB 2012 World Population Data Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Shrestha, L. B., Heisler, E. J., & Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. (2011). The changing demographic profile of the United States. Retrieved from

United States Demographics. (n.d.). Stanford Center on Longevity. Retrieved May 11, 2013, from

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Longevity & Health

New Patterns of Work, Retirement and Learning

Impediments to Positive Aging