AARP
"Global aging is an achievement to be celebrated. The increase in healthier, longer lives can be a windfall that brings unimaginable benefits to families, communities and national economies."

I have to admit I am frustrated when the rising wave of population aging throughout the world is compared—disparagingly—to a tsunami. Rather than stoke fear, policymakers should consider a profound difference between these two kinds of waves.

Unlike a tsunami, global aging can be predicted years in advance. And while it is inevitable, global aging is also an opportunity. Older people have inherent strengths, far greater than commonly recognized, and an aging population can be a major asset. With fresh thinking and innovative strategies, countries around the world can reap an array of social and economic benefits from this demographic force.

But to seize this opportunity, we must toss aside negative stereotypes and be guided by several fundamental truths:

  • Older people are not a burden, but a benefit to society. A growing body of evidence shows that older individuals make meaningful contributions not just to their families, but also to their communities and their national economies. Our goal must be to capture and expand on the talents, experience and time older people provide, in order to optimize this contribution. This awareness is essential for policymakers, now and in the coming decades.
  • Health is a lifelong-process. Investments in public health and wellness have the greatest return when they are provided across the full life course, starting with childhood and continuing through advanced illness. Research shows that an individual’s prospects for a healthy life are often established by circumstances of their youth. Proper care as we age can also prolong the time in which individuals are productive, self-sufficient and secure.
  • Helping one generation does not mean others are harmed. Generations depend on each other. Most efforts to support older people also help younger people—who otherwise would bear a greater burden of care for aging parents and grandparents. Public investments in programs like Social Security and long-term services, financed by working-age adults, help spread costs between families and generations. Older family members often provide years of financial and other support to their families, including extremely valuable caregiving and child-rearing.

I do not wish to minimize the extent of the challenge that is headed our way. By 2030, the number of people 60 and older in the world will surpass the  number of children under 10 for the first time in history. By mid-century, the 60-plus population will double from today, to more than 2 billion. In some areas, including many less-developed nations, the change will be even more dramatic. In Asia, the 60-plus population is projected to soar from 11 percent in 2012 to 24 percent by 2050. 

Further, the number of “oldest old” will soar, tripling by mid-century to 392 million people age 80 and over. At advanced stages of life, people are much more likely to suffer from chronic conditions and require home and community-based services to stay independent. The majority of these people will be women, who generally face old age with fewer resources than men, and a greater risk of poverty.

However, it is a mistake to view “aging” as synonymous with decline. Rather, aging is a lifelong process that entails growth, learning and ongoing contributions. A great many people remain productive in their later years, holding on to their health and independence and helping those around them. Even at age 85 and over, almost three in 10 Americans (28 percent) describe their health as very good or excellent1.

Such vigorous seniors will almost certainly be more common in the future, and supportive policies can ensure that is the case. Scientific advances now raise the possibility that the health declines of aging can be delayed, giving individuals a windfall of more than two years of generally health life2. Researchers say such a development could add $7.1 trillion to the U.S. economy over the next 50 years3, a strong argument that investments in such science can benefit all countries.

Older individuals already make tremendous financial contributions to their families and to their economy. 

On average, older persons spend more on their younger relatives than they get back, a phenomenon observed in countries in various stages of development4. Research by Oxford Economics5 underscores the tremendous and growing economic contribution of people age 50 and up, a little-recognized phenomenon we call the “longevity economy.”

In 2012, the longevity economy accounted for 46 percent of US gross domestic product ($7.1 trillion). They project that by 2032 the 50-plus age group will drive more than half of US economic activity, as the spending of older consumers fuels many industries, including apparel, health care, education and entertainment.

While the longevity economy data are for the United States alone, they illustrate a broader point: Older workers and consumers can be a growth engine in any national economy, yet one that is often overlooked.

And impressive as the longevity economic statistics may be, they do not capture the full contribution made by older persons. As just one example, unpaid volunteerism by seniors in the United States alone was worth $67 billion in 20136.

Older people also contribute a large dose of entrepreneurial energy, bolstered by skills and insights attained over many years. The popular image of an entrepreneur may be of a kid working in the garage on some high-tech idea. Yet we find we find in the United States that twice as many successful entrepreneurs are 50-plus as in their early 20s7. And in an AARP survey, 15 percent of workers age 45 to 74 described themselves as self-employed, with a similar number of wage-earners saying they intended to start a business8.

These and other findings suggest that societies that do the best job of supporting their older residents will be rewarded in many ways. Healthier and more productive seniors will make an even greater contribution, and a more independent older population will require less support from the young.

A range of strategies can help society fully reap these benefits. Policymakers should embrace a holistic approach, recognizing that supports provided in childhood can pay off through the entire course of an individual’s life. Education and access to health care in youth can play a significant role in influencing well-being in old age. Promoting economic opportunity for young adults can increase their financial security in middle age and retirement. Here are three recommendations on how society can gain the most from the assets brought by an older population:

  • Communities should take more steps to support the lifelong health and well-being of their residents. By doing so, they will benefit from a population of engaged older citizens who remain vital members of their cities and towns.

Neighborhoods should have safe, walkable streets and age-friendly, affordable housing. Through community design and convenient transportation, residents should have easy access to the services they need. Such features promote everyone’s ability to stay engaged in the full range of community life—older people, students, workers and entire families.

  • Employers should establish a workplace culture that values experience and provides training and other opportunities that enable workers of all ages to grow.

Such employers will stay competitive by retaining the productivity and know-how of seasoned employees. They will do a better job of preserving institutional knowledge that can be of critical value. Moreover, the workplace is an ideal setting to encourage intergenerational teamwork and dialogue. Older individuals possess skills that should be leveraged for the greater good—in the workplace and all of society. Also, a holistic view of lifelong health promotion must include mental health, which can be supported by a workplace that offers opportunities for learning and new challenges. Research out of Germany has found that years of tedious routine actually promote cognitive decline9.

  • We all have a role to play, including nonprofits, government, individuals and the private sector, in shaping a society that takes advantage of the skills and talents of older individuals. 

AARP is committed to these goals, because we know firsthand the contributions that our members make to society and their aspiration to continue doing so throughout their lives.

The AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities encourages cities and towns to take the steps that enable older residents to stay healthy, productive and engaged. Our Best Employers International program honors employers who embrace the value of experience and all their older workers have to offer.

AARP also promotes international collaboration and the exchange of best practices, because we want to learn from the successes of others, as well as share our own insights. We urge our international partners to recognize the opportunity that stands before us.

Global aging is an achievement to be celebrated. The increase in healthier, longer lives can be a windfall that brings unimaginable benefits to families, communities and national economies.

Global aging is also a powerful wave that cannot be stopped. Now is the time for policymakers to prepare. Strategies and investments that support individuals throughout the entire course of their lives will help us harness this dynamic force to make a better world for the old, the young and future generations. 

 

1 “Heterogeneity in Healthy Aging,” David J. Lowsky et al. The Journals of Gerontology. Published online November 17, 2013.

2 “Substantial Health And Economic Returns From Delayed Aging May Warrant A New Focus for Medical Research,” Dana P. Goldman et al. Health Affairs. October 2013. Vol. 32. No. 10.

3 Ibid.

4 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013). World Population Ageing 2013. ST/ESA/SER.A/348.

5 http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/home-and-family/personal-technology/2013-10/Longevity-Economy-Generating-New-Growth-AARP.pdf

6 Source: Corporation for National and Community Service

7 https://hbr.org/2013/06/entrepreneurs-get-better-with/

8 “Staying Ahead of the Curve 2013: AARP Multicultural Work and Career Study”

9 http://www.germaninnovation.org/shared/content/documents/interviews/4AE07F34-C0EB-E111-A037-000C29E5517F.pdf 

 

about the author

Debra B. Whitman is Executive Vice President for Policy, Strategy and International Affairs, AARP. She is an authority on aging issues with extensive experience in national policymaking, domestic and international research, and the political process.

 

She oversees AARP’s Public Policy Institute, Office of Policy Integration, Office of International Affairs and Office of Academic Affairs. She works closely with the Board of Directors and National Policy Council on a broad agenda to develop AARP policy priorities and make life better for older Americans. An economist, she is a strategic thinker whose career has been dedicated to solving problems affecting economic and health security, and other issues related to population aging.

 
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