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Source: National Geographic Magazine

China is on the brink of a huge demographic shift. Over the next two decades, an unprecedented baby boom from the 1960s will age into “the largest number of elderly ever in the history of China,” says Yu Xie, a Princeton University sociologist who studies the country.

Why is elderly, adjective, not followed by a noun.

Is it a kind of ellipsis? Because the omitted word is assumed to be “people”.

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    It's just an "adjective serving as noun" usage, where the noun that the adjective would normally be modifying (people, for example, in your context) is implied but not explicitly stated . Same as The poor are always with us, The rich are different, etc. Your specific example is a bit less common (in most contexts we wouldn't have any other words between the and the "nounified adjective") - I personally would say it's therefore slightly "stylised", and should generally be avoided. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 14 '18 at 13:57
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    @James K: If the mods decide my comment is superfluous they will delete it. I don't want to spend the time creating a full answer myself, but I think the existing one is misleading in that it makes great play of the fact that this particular adjective happens to have dictionary definitions for its use as a noun. I'm not going to bother looking, but I expect [the] sick / wounded would also be thus defined, but this has little bearing on the fact that I can say The wounded stayed behind while the healthy marched on. And you won't find that noun usage in a dictionary. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 14 '18 at 17:12
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    @FumbleFingers - One of the comments here was superfluous. It wasn't yours. – J.R. Feb 14 '18 at 21:52
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    Compare The number of sick and wounded treated there during the entire month of December was 178... or We're running out of paint. We need to order five more cartons of high-gloss and five more cartons of matte. Collective noun formed from an attribute. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 15 '18 at 11:56
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    @Tᴚoɯɐuo: I find that a useful example, in that it reminds me that lots of adjectives can easily be pressed into service as nouns provided the relevant "underlying" noun has already been explicitly mentioned, as in We have two kinds [of X] - this one's [adj1] and that one's [adj2]. Which do you want? - I'll have [the] adj1/2 [one] please. But although some adj1/2 values work fine without either of the or one there, some adjectives seem to require at least an article (the/a), and others also require an explicit noun (one). IDK if there's a pattern there. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 15 '18 at 17:15
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The word elderly has a less-common (but still in wide use) noun form in addition to an adjective form. It is most commonly used in the singular form preceded by a 'the' to refer to a collective group of elderly people.

At Dictionary.com it is defined as:

(used with a plural verb) elderly people collectively; senior citizens (usually preceded by the)

Merriam Webster defines it as:

an elderly person with the additional note that the plural of 'elderly' in this form is also 'elderly'.

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