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Golden years: a resource of experience and enterprise

Sensemaking / Golden years: a resource of experience and enterprise

Jon Turney makes the case for valuing old age as the world's elderly population grows.

By Jon Turney / 18 Apr 2014

Getting on a bit. You know, long in the tooth. That’s most of us in the future, according to demographers.

With the usual caveats about calamity, those in the know about population dynamics now seem pretty confident that falling birth rates and increased life expectancy will have only one outcome: an ageing world. The two trends are more advanced in some countries than others, but generally apply to most of the world’s population. And their implications are likely to have a profound effect on the way we view old age.

Instead of seeing the elderly as a demographic that have already made the majority of their contribution to the planet, we’re more likely to think of them as a valuable source of enterprise and experience. Indeed, many of the future’s ‘old’ will belie our current stereotypes. There will be far more active, fit people in their 60s and 70s, and they’ll be planning to stay that way in their 80s. Old age will no longer be synonymous with frailty, isolation or dependence.

But the scale of the shift now under way calls for some serious adaptation. Societies with higher numbers of older people will need to develop innovative health and education systems, as well as new housing, transport, employment, financial planning, architecture and urban design models, to suit their needs. Many of these changes will benefit everyone. Cities could be made easier to navigate, for example, with improved public transport systems. And many more retirees will be able to put their time and experience to good use as volunteers. Different people living in different places will make different choices. And we can be sure they will want to choose: whether that’s to continue working, to learn new skills or to have a varied social life. All of which runs counter to pessimistic notions that an army of dependent, non-productive elders will overwhelm health services and care workers in future.

Why the world is ageing

In general, countries move from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates as they develop – which is known as the demographic transition. Why does this occur? Primarily because you don’t need to have as many children to ensure that some will survive to look after you in old age; in developed nations, any offspring are much more likely to make it past the key milestones of their first and fifth birthdays. Therefore, people tend to raise smaller families.

Result: a population with proportionately fewer children, and more adults. But beyond the reduction in infant mortality, life expectancy for adults is now increasing too. In Europe, for example, a 70-year-old has the same probability of dying as a 57 -year-old had half a century ago. And this trend is ongoing, with life expectancy in the developed world increasing by two years per decade.

In fact, 25% of the global population will be over 60 by 2050, outnumbering those aged under 15. Some countries are well ahead of this curve already. In Japan, for instance, 25% of the population is already over 65, and life expectancy for men is 80, and 86 for women.

As the number of old people increases worldwide, the ageing effect will shift to developing countries, with rapid changes in India and China. By 2050, 68% of the world’s population over 80 will be living in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

But the increase in the very old will continue in existing developed countries too. The number of centenarians in the UK alone went up from 2,500 in 1982 to 12,300 in 2012. Only a start, says Professor Sarah Harper of the Oxford Institute on Ageing, who estimates there will be around half a million UK centenarians by 2050, and potentially a million by the end of the century.


Nevertheless, an overall increase in the number of older people, and the eventual increase in what we now regard as the really old (those in their 90s and centenarians), will mean more people living with chronic conditions and needing regular care, which of course costs money. Supporting people with dignity throws up a host of moral issues: what quality of life, for instance, does a centenarian with poor health enjoy? And is it right that younger generations will have to bear the brunt of the social and financial costs of caring for them?

Figuring out the finances of a greying planet already preoccupies numerous governments, think tanks and old age advocacy groups. There are two big trends to consider. Developed countries with state pension provision, faced with a cohort of ageing baby-boomers, are cutting back; benefits are static or decreasing, and the age at which they are payable is rising. The age when pensions start is set to increase in the US, France, Italy, Spain, Britain and Japan, currently the country with the world’s oldest population.

That means retirement comes later. Employers will have to manage the workforce differently, balancing the needs and insights of older, more experienced employees against those of younger staff. Currently, the valuable contributions of many fit, older workers are simply lost when government legislation forces them to retire sooner than they might wish. Some governments are taking steps to address this, however. Singapore, which had a retirement age of 62, brought in the Retirement and Re-Employment Act in 2012. Backed by some government money, it requires companies to offer re-employment to fit, capable employees until they are 67. It makes sound economic sense: in countries with ageing populations, employers will increasingly have to draw from a smaller pool of young workers.

More employers are also finding that older workers have skills that are hard to replace. In some cases, workplaces might need to adapt to retain their knowledge. BMW recently staffed an engine production line in one plant to give an average age of 47, in order to study how to adapt the line’s design to their needs. Answers included more comfortable seating, a schedule for short breaks, alternating sitting and standing, and some visual aids. Altogether, the changes they made as a result allowed the line to increase productivity to the same levels as others run by younger employees.

Tomorrow’s employment landscape will need to allow people to change jobs, opt for working from home or flexi-time hours, and mix part-time paid work, voluntary work and caring for grandchildren. After all, well-being relies on feeling connected and contributing. With childcare costs rising in many Western countries, a happy, healthy grandparent who’s willing to lend a hand will be a godsend for families.

Acknowledging this, the light-hearted ‘Men’s Sheds’ movement that began in Australia aims to create spaces where people – most often elderly men, but not exclusively old or male – can share facilities to work on projects that need the kind of equipment often found in the shed. It also allows them to learn, as well as teach, new skills, thereby benefitting the wider community. Activities include woodwork, metalwork, bike repairs, gardening, electronics and photography. However, the bonds of even the strongest family can be strained by the costs of caring for elderly relatives. With this in mind, 101 countries have introduced noncontributory state-funded ‘social pensions’, according to HelpAge International – some with a greater reach than others. They include China, whose New Rural Pension Scheme launched in 2009 and applies to 133 million over 60-year-olds.

These schemes typically guarantee a minimum of support, and can have a big impact on families with stretched resources. A third of these have started since the year 2000, but the first was introduced in South Africa back in 1928, finally achieving racial parity in 1996. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study in the year 2000 found that granddaughters of families whose elderly members received the social pension were 2-4cm taller than a comparable group. By reallocating resources in this way, governments can provide greater support for the ageing population while helping younger generations.

In future, technological and medical advances could also help to address many of the issues that can prevent the elderly from contributing to society. Exoskeletons that can help people walk, lift heavy objects and generally remain as capable as any younger person are currently in development, and new treatments for Alzheimer’s and other diseases that afflict the elderly are expected to arrive in the coming decades.

The simple fact that there are more old people around may mean that isolation is less of a risk too. Future centenarians will be able to have something almost none had before: friends their own age. Hopefully, the social and technological changes that will help keep people active for longer will also transform them from an under-stimulated cohort into what they really are: a growing resource of experience and enterprise.

Staying connected

The increase in the number of older adults is provoking some innovative thinking from designers and social entrepreneurs. The UK’s innovation think tank Nesta has begun to catalogue ideas to help old people stay connected and increase their well-being by staying active. Their list covers a ‘virtual’ tea room, trialled by Intel, one of a number of schemes connecting old people with others from their homes – in this case, by using a simple tablet interface to talk to friends and neighbours. Other solutions include IT support for carers, using movement sensors to monitor elderly people remotely, and a private social network to connect the carer with the individual should they have any concerns.

The Austrian supermarket chain Adeg has also introduced wider aisles and improved lighting to suit older customers – something that will benefit shoppers of all ages. Early trials of the new layout and lighting features resulted in a 20% increase in sales, and the design has now been rolled out across all the retailer’s store.

Rise of the silver surfer

While some older people remain offline, many are enthusiastic users of the internet. These ‘silver surfers’ are able to keep in touch with children and grandchildren, as well as the wider online world, offering their insights and opinions no matter where they happen to live. And to paraphrase a line from a famous New Yorker cartoon, “on the internet, nobody knows you’re an OAP”. In other words, age discrimination, mobility problems and other age-related issues typically have little relevance in your online life.

Plenty of grandparents already use Skype and its emulators to make video calls to distant children, and the market for connecting families is attracting more innovators. A company called Ceiva has developed a digital photo frame that allows you to send pictures wirelessly for display to whoever owns the frame – a grandparent, perhaps?

Elderly people who don’t wish to be hooked up to the internet can still make use of the Presto mailbox, a phone-linked printer which delivers documents or photos from authorised senders without an internet connection. Messages can be scheduled to help organise the recipient’s day, and friends and family can also monitor how many messages are coming in.


Jon Turney is a freelance writer and author of ‘The Rough Guide to the Future’.

Photo credit: Andresr/Shutterstock, Steve Mason/Digital Vision/Thinkstock, Mikael Damkier/Shutterstock

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