There’s a movement afoot to disrupt aging—to change hearts and minds about the possibilities of longer life. From the streets to the boardroom, to the halls of political power, an enlightened conversation about the future is beginning to take shape. Change is rarely easy, but, in the United States and other places with aging populations, there’s an evolving recognition that it’s time to cast aside outdated expectations and define people by who they are—not by how old they are.
If demography is destiny, then millennials, currently in their late teens to mid-30s, will inherit the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly aging world—a landscape that anticipates a near doubling of the over-65-years-old population between 2010 and 2050. Now representing nearly a fourth of the US population and at 1.8 billion strong worldwide, the millennial generation could be the one to solidify new ideas and norms to improve longer lives. Its ability to tackle complex problems already has delivered profound social innovations and advances in such domains as transportation and health care. That same creativity may soon change aging across the world—for the better.
As today’s aging generation adapts to a world of challenges and opportunities afforded by increasing longevity—a new normal—it may ultimately be the millennial generation that successfully shapes a new life course.
Unique Skills and Characteristics
Millennials possess the education, tech know-how, diversity, and ease with information access and dissemination that puts them in the position to rethink and revolutionize the aging experience. As members of the so-called Selfie Generation, which is often criticized as self-absorbed, millennials have in fact used technology to improve communication, mobility, and opportunity in ways that are crucial for aging adults to maintain their independence.
As sharing-economy success stories like Uber and Airbnb transform the global marketplace, millennial entrepreneurs continue to develop new products and services for the rapidly expanding longevity economy. From social networks and autonomous cars to wearables and digital health tools, millennials are dreaming up innovations that will transform and improve millions of lives.
Aging populations today enjoy a life expectancy that is nearly double what it was just over a century ago. With the prospect of many more years of life than their parents and grandparents had, millennials will have more time for work, recreation, learning, and purpose. This continuing dynamic, the result of life-extending advances in science and sanitation, will dramatically affect every aspect of society—from business, education, and health care to politics, civic institutions, and culture.
Genomic research will push ahead, seeking to unlock the secrets of radical life extension, and that possibility alone should motivate younger adults to think about what aging will look like as their own lives progress.
Millennials also know that science doesn’t sleep, and that means they’ll be parenting a new generation with the prospect of even longer lives.
Health and Wellness
Thanks to their standing as the most educated generation ever, millennials are poised to experience better personal health in later life than their parents did. With access to vast information about nutrition and the powerful effects of exercise, this younger generation increasingly takes a personal interest in their health. Half of US millennials fear loss of physical agility and self-reliance more than financial insecurity later in life, according to research by the market research company Nielsen.
Scientific innovation, accelerated disease cures, and personalized medicine will enable longer health spans. But millennials face a major challenge—tackling the obesity epidemic. If not arrested, obesity, with its skyrocketing costs, will continue to burden the economies of aging societies across the world.
Environment and Well-Being
Beyond physical health, the emerging “livable cities” movement provides millennials with opportunities to expand urban features that influence better aging. The World Health Organization’s initiative for age-friendly cities has spread to 33 countries, and institutions ranging from AARP to the Milken Institute actively promote improvements in infrastructure, amenities, and culture to ensure that cities become more effective places to serve the needs of residents of all ages.
As more leaders embrace livable-community concepts, the millennial generation will have greater access to healthful activities, like bicycling, walking, and social engagement. Conveniences for older people will include transportation options, social service networks, learning opportunities, and diverse housing alternatives.
Work and Education
Millennials will almost certainly continue the developing trend of working later in life, due to economic need and a desire for ongoing challenge and contribution. Fortunately, studies associate the stimulus of working with well-being and enhanced health for older adults.
Millennials’ flexibility and comfort with new and diverse environments will serve them well as the old model of working for one company and in one career fades. They will head back to school at times—to learn new skills for career switches and to enjoy educational opportunities during added years of vitality. Steeped in computing ease and already well educated, millennials will readily adapt to the growth of open-source learning.
At the same time, this younger generation will inherit a persistent challenge: ageism, with its heavy costs to individuals and societies. Research confirms that older people’s emotional stability, reliability, wisdom, and experience improve productivity and work environments. But these merits still await a frontier of acceptance, hampered by unfounded bias and misperceptions. Millennials should take the initiative in the developing culture shift, one that recognizes the proven benefits of older workers. They will experience multigenerational workforces in their careers and be positioned to build acceptance and appreciation of older workers—changes that will benefit them directly as they age.
A key element to well-being for older adults is financial security. Millennials came of age during the Great Recession, with poverty and unemployment rates higher than what Gen-Xers and baby boomers had at this stage of life. Yet the Pew Research Center finds that millennials are financially optimistic and ambitious, and while most don’t feel they earn enough to support their desired lives, roughly 8 in 10 think they’ll get there in the future.
Still, millennials carry massive student debt that far exceeds that experienced by earlier generations at the same age; and more than half of millennials say they are living paycheck to paycheck, unable to save for the future, according to Wells Fargo. It is not yet clear whether they will attain the financial health that so importantly contributes to physical and emotional well-being in older age.
A key aspect of well-being for older adults is the definition of purpose in their lives—fulfillment of the urge for meaningful engagement and beneficial contribution. Purpose improves mental and physical health, and it correlates with greater productivity, creativity, and resilience. As the benefits of purposeful aging become more widely understood, millennials will be more inclined than earlier generations to define their purpose and act on it through volunteerism, mentoring, and other meaningful activities.
Millennials already volunteer more than past generations did. In 2013, 20 percent of adults under 30 volunteered, the Corporation for National and Community Service states. That compares to 14 percent of young adults in 1989, an analysis of Census Bureau data shows. The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that nearly a quarter of caregivers today are between the ages of 18 and 34. This trend is likely to grow with the prevalence of incapacitating illness like Alzheimer’s and the aging of the baby boomers.
Millennials also are philanthropic and are known for valuing experiences more than possessions, a trait that also happens to characterize older adults. Roughly 8 in 10 millennial employees and managers among 2,500 surveyed in small and large firms made charitable donations in 2014, according to an Achieve LLC study sponsored by the Case Foundation. With these priorities and values, millennials may well usher in a new era of meaning and purpose as they enter their later years.
One can only imagine what breakthroughs might further boost life spans, and the pathways to solving the challenges of chronic disease, ageism, and financial insecurity remain uncertain. But aging is changing, and a new and hopeful narrative is being written. Millennials—with their big numbers, bold ideas, and longer lives—will be powerful participants in that process, with opportunities large and small to set a new course and improve lives. The movement to disrupt aging is building, and the millennials, heeding the call to action, will shape the future.
about the author
Paul Irving is chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging and distinguished scholar in residence at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. Author, speaker and recognized leader in the field, Irving previously served as the Institute’s president, an advanced leadership fellow at Harvard University and CEO of a prominent law and consulting firm.