Last May, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that life expectancy worldwide has increased by five years in less than two decades. This 5-year growth is the fastest rise in life expectancy since the 1960s.The average global life expectancy for a baby born in 2015 is now 71 for women and 69 for men. Women in Japan and men in Switzerland typically live the longest—86.8 years and 81.3 years, respectively.
The WHO attributes this growth largely to improvements in health care for children and to better availability of medicines, including those for malaria and AIDS. Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest increase in life expectancy has come in Africa.
This exciting news adds one more chapter to the success story we call global aging. Our ability to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives is one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments. Yet, the global aging story is about much more than demographics.
The way we are aging today is dramatically different from how it was a generation—or even a decade—ago. Being 50 or 60 or 70+ today is very different than it was for our parents. Yes, we are living longer and in better health, but it’s much more than that: we haven’t just added more years to the end of life, we’ve extended middle age and, in essence, created a new life stage that has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for how we live and age. And we’re just beginning to understand the full range and depth of those possibilities.
This is an incredibly exciting time. We live in a world where people ages 60 and over outnumber children ages 5 and under. Demographers predict that more than half the children born today will live to 100—and some researchers believe that the first person who will live to the age of 150 has already been born.
But it’s not just about numbers. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has observed that “the social and economic implications of this phenomenon are profound, extending far beyond the individual older person and the immediate family, touching broader society and the global community in unprecedented ways.”
People throughout the world are beginning to understand this. Entrepreneurs and innovators are creating an incredible array of products and services targeted to older people. Advances in research and technology are driving innovation in virtually every field that affects our ability to live well as we age. Science is making longer lives possible—now we have to figure out what we’re going to do with them.
Even as all of these exciting developments are changing the way we age, most conversations around aging still view it as a problem to be solved. And the solutions are all an effort to avoid the “international crisis” that is global aging.
It’s a premise that is absolutely and fundamentally wrong, and millions of people are proving it wrong every day. The conversation can’t be about how to avoid a crisis; it needs to be about how to take advantage of the opportunities we have so that we as individuals and as nations can thrive.
Our cultures, institutions, social supports, and infrastructures have not kept pace with the advancements in the way we age that science, technology, and innovation have made—and continue to make—possible. That’s what the conversation is about.
We need to get rid of the outdated beliefs and stereotypes about aging and spark new solutions so that more of us can choose how we want to live and age. That means replacing old models that don’t work with new ones that do and updating those that do work so they may continue to work in the future.
It also means that we have to evolve our thinking about what it means to grow older and what it’s like to be older.
Because of the work of aging-related organizations and many insightful leaders throughout the world, we have made tremendous progress when it comes to global aging. The numbers I cited earlier bear this out, but we still have a long way to go.
Because we are just now beginning to see the opportunities that aging societies offer, it is time to coalesce around the progress we have made and create a movement to “disrupt aging”—that is, to change the conversation about what it means to grow older.
As CEO of AARP, I want to use the power and voice of the organization to do just that. And that’s why I wrote my book, Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age.
When I talk about Disrupt Aging, I’m talking about
embracing aging as something to look forward to, not something to fear;
seeing it as a period of growth, not decline;
recognizing the opportunities, not just the challenges; and, perhaps most importantly,
helping older people see themselves and others as contributors to society, not burdens.
I won’t pretend that we aren’t affected by the aging process—we are. And I won’t proclaim that all people are living longer and living better—they aren’t. In Sierra Leone, for example, life expectancy is only 49 for men and 50 for women. But I am here to tell you that it’s time to put aging in the proper perspective.
There are four distinct shifts occurring, all of which have an impact on our societies.
First is the demographic shift. Put quite simply, there are greater numbers of older people living long and healthy lives. Over the past 100 years, we have added over 30 years to the average life expectancy. In 2015, more than 1.6 billion people in the world were ages 50 and older; by 2050, that number will double to nearly 3.2 billion people. In the United States, the fastest-growing age group is people 85+; the second fastest is people 100+—and the majority of them are women.
Second, there is an economic shift. More than half of all consumer expenditures in the United States are made by people ages 50 and over, and the 106 million people in this demographic comprise a Longevity Economy that accounts for over $7.6 trillion in annual economic activity. By 2032, that number is expected to rise to over $13.5 trillion. This Longevity Economy is now larger than that of any country except the United States and China.
Participants in the Longevity Economy are as diverse as the population as a whole, with people from all regions, races, professions, and pursuits—united only by their age. Collectively, they are active in the workplace. They stay employed longer, earn wages, spend money, generate tax revenue, and produce economic value for an extended period of time. They also drive entrepreneurship and investment, and are enthusiastic consumers of leisure activities who also like to spend money (over $50 billion a year) on their grandchildren.
Third, there is a behavioral shift. Older people are reinventing work, searching for purpose, embracing technology, and opening themselves up to new experiences like never before. Almost 7 in 10 boomers plan to work full or part time after age 65. Boomers—the first of whom turned 70 this year—spend more time online than even millennials. And 8 out of 10 boomers consider a number of brands before deciding to purchase a product or service.
And, fourth, there is a cultural shift. Traditional generational distinctions are blurring, fueled by intergenerational experiences, intergenerational relationships, and intergenerational culture and entertainment. Over 49 million Americans live in households with three or more generations. When millennials are asked who their best friends are, 85 percent of them name a parent. And, we’re seeing more and more entertainment options geared toward people of all generations.
We have also come to realize that, in many cases, people will spend more time and resources caring for their aging parents than they did raising their own children. If that’s not a culture shift, I don’t know what is.
All of this is giving us a new perspective and creating new opportunities. We need to disrupt aging to help people confront their challenges and pursue their opportunities to the fullest extent possible. That requires changing the way we talk about aging from something we fear to something we embrace. Disrupt Aging is about challenging the old stereotypes and attitudes about aging and sparking new solutions in order for more people to choose how they want to live and age. It must involve individuals, private-sector organizations (both NGOs and for profit), and government at all levels.
At AARP, we truly believe that age and experience can expand life’s possibilities for every member of our society. When we disrupt aging and embrace it as something to look forward to, rather than something to fear, we can begin to discover the real possibilities for becoming the person we’ve always wanted to be—and we can build a society where all people are valued because of who they are, not judged by how old they are.