Growing Older, Getting Mellower, Feeling Good

Pew survey finds older Americans like their lives more than other age groups.

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Taking a step back from the dismal economy and housing bust, things apparently look pretty good to older Americans. A Pew Research Center poll and report on Growing Old in America finds people 65 and older feeling pretty good about themselves and their lives—better, in fact, than the views of old age held by younger Americans.

Of course, it may be hard to see an attractive bigger picture when your home is worth far less than it was two years ago, you can't find even part-time work and the dollars don't stretch as far as you want, regardless of what government statistics say about low rates of inflation.

But in longevity terms, Pew notes, a 65-year-old American today will live on average another 19 years. Anyone lucky enough to reach the age of 65 in the year 1900 would have had only 12 more years left. And in economic terms, the gains have been even more impressive. "In 1966, 28.5 percent of Americans ages 65 and older lived below the poverty line; in 2007, 9.7 percent did," the report says. "By contrast, current poverty rates for children and for adults ages 18-64 are little changed from the mid-1960s. As a result, the poverty rate for older Americans is now lower than that for children or for other adults."

There is mounting evidence, in fact, that today may be a relative high-water mark for older citizens. Look at the surge of Baby Boomers getting ready to leave full-time work and begin collecting Social Security and Medicare benefits. They literally will break the bank, and the back, of these entitlement programs. Sure, health reforms could lead to better care at lower cost. But this will not happen overnight and it's not going to happen at all without some pain.

[See Social Security, Medicare Busts Move Closer.]

But for now, nearly half of the people aged 75 and up say their lives have turned out better than they expected, Pew says, versus only five percent who feel they've been dealt a worse hand than they hoped. This positive tilt is greater than for any other age group, Pew reports, and it gets higher as people get older. People also reported feeling younger than their actual age as they get older. Among people aged 18 to 29, a quarter felt younger than their age and a quarter felt older (the other half said they felt their age). But Pew says among people aged 65 and up, 60 percent said they felt younger than their age and only 3 percent said they felt older.

[See 4 Ways Retirees Can Enrich Their Life (And the Lives of Others).]

Pew says the most intriguing finding of its research is that the generation gap has returned in a pronounced way. Now, researchers acknowledge that there is no standard definition of the generation gap and that the phrase might carry different meanings today than in past polls. But 79 percent of the people polled earlier this year said there was a generation gap versus only 60 percent in a 1979 survey and 74 percent in 1969. "The most common explanation offered by respondents of all ages has to do with differences in morality, values and work ethic," Pew says. "Relatively few cite differences in political outlook or in uses of technology."

Here are how different age groups see the challenges and benefits of aging:

Challenges % Ages 65+ % Ages 18-64 % Gap
Memory loss 25 57 32
Not able to drive 14 45 31
Serious illness 21 42 21
Not sexually active 21 34 13
Feeling sad or depressed 20 29 9
Not feeling needed 9 29 20
Loneliness 17 29 12
Trouble paying bills 16 24 8
Being a burden 10 24 14
Benefits % Ages 65+ Ages 18-64 % Gap
More time for hobbies/interests 65 87 22
More time with family 70  86 16
Volunteer work 52  80 28
More travel 52  77 25
More financial security 64  67 3
Less stress 59  65 6
Not working 66  58 -8
More respect 59  56 -3
Second career 14  39 25