It is the newest story on earth: a multitude of people growing old. It has never happened before, and it will certainly be a defining story of this century.
Just note these statistics: In 2000, there were already more people ages 60 and older than children ages 5 and under; by 2050, the world will have more people over 60 than people under 10. In 2012, 810 million people were ages 60 and older, accounting for 11.5 percent of the global population. That number is projected to reach 1 billion in less than 10 years and to more than double—to over 2 billion—by 2050. Each day in the United States, 10,000 people turn 65, and that trend will continue for the next 16 years. And it is a story with a decidedly feminine angle, because the world’s older population is predominantly female. At age 60+, 54% of the population is female. At age 80+, 62% is.
Twenty years ago, I was a delegate to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. It was an exciting event at a time when many women’s lives were changing in unprecedented ways. In Beijing, women came together from different nations and cultures to discuss the challenges that women and girls faced and continue to face. But even more important, we worked together to implement policies that would offer greater opportunities to women. Twenty years later, we can all agree that more still needs to be done. But since Beijing there have been considerable improvements in the lives of women and girls around the world, especially in the areas of health care and education.
Just as attitudes about women were evolving twenty years ago, one could say our views about age should be changing today. Yet too often, the conversation is only about the challenges our aging populations present to governments and families. Of course older people need information and services to remain healthy and the financial resources and opportunities to match their longer life spans. But that’s not the whole story. The fact that millions of people are living longer lives should be recognized as one of mankind’s greatest and most beneficial achievements. These people need to be seen and valued as an integral and inspirational asset to society. Paul Irving, who chairs the Milken Institute’s new Center for the Future of Aging, has observed that “knowing that economic growth comes at the intersection of demography and innovation, this older population will move the world forward.(Irving, 2014)
Perhaps what is most needed at this time is a positive view of aging—both for society and for ourselves. We must change our thinking about what it means to get older. Our CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins, has recently issued a challenge. She has declared:
Let’s disrupt aging. Let’s upend our thinking about what it means to get older. To disrupt aging we need to own our age. We need to get to the point where we’re no longer defined by the old expectations of what we should do or should not do at a certain age. We don’t want to be defined by our age any more than we want to be defined by race or sex or income. Disruptive aging begins with each of us embracing our own aging—feeling good where we are in life. To disrupt aging, we have to help people see aging as growth, not decline. We have to embrace aging as something to look forward to, not something to fear.
It is already happening. All around us we see people over age 50 leading far different lives than their parents did at the same age. They are living with purpose in a variety of different ways. They are skilled workers and leaders of their communities, committed to their families and proud of their achievements. And, I must add, older women who were for so long devalued are now appreciated for their experience as women never were before. Though 50 is not the new 30 nor 60 the new 40, 50 for many people is definitely a new 50, and that is more than enough.
Meeting the challenges of an aging world, will require all parts of society, including governments and businesses, to work together in innovative ways. But most of all, it will require each of us to disrupt aging and wholeheartedly believe that age—and the knowledge it brings—expands life’s possibilities and helps us become the person we always wanted to be.
About the author
Myrna Blyth is the Senior Vice President and Editorial Director of AARP Media, overseeing AARP The Magazine, the largest circulation magazine in the world, the AARP Bulletin, website, book department and AARP Studios. Previously she was Editor-in-Chief and Publishing Director of Ladies’ Home Journal for more than twenty years. She was also founding Editor-in-Chief and Publishing Director of More Magazine.
Ms. Blyth is also an author and has written many articles for various publications including New York and The New Yorker, as well as two novels. Her novels were both Literary Guild alternate selections. Her first non-fiction book, “Spin Sisters,” about the effect media has on American women was published by St. Martin’s Press and was a New York Times bestseller.
Mrs. Blyth’s many awards include being named Advertising Age magazine’s “Publishing Executive of the Year” and receiving the “Women of Achievement” award from the New York City Commission on the Status of Women. She also received the Magazine Publishers of America’s Henry Johnson Fisher Award, the industry’s highest honor, and the Matrix Award from New York’s Women in Communications, Inc.