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The Promise of Aging

"Globally, we are overdue in recasting the issue of aging. World leaders need to wake up to the fact that population aging is a defining feature of life in the 21st century and develop new ways of thinking."

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Debra B. Whitman
Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer,  AARP

At least six months before the big day, my children start looking forward to their birthdays. They know that with each passing year, they not only will get a delicious cake, they also will have more opportunities and responsibilities. But that same perspective of growth and possibilities too often is lost as we age, and aging is viewed as a “problem” with which we must deal.

But aging is not a problem. It is a wonderful opportunity. In the last century alone, for much of humanity, life has been extended by 35 years or even more. And by the year 2030, globally, there will be more adults age 60 and up than children under 10. Nations have no choice but to start planning for longevity.

Yet our society has not adapted. Policymakers have not yet devised the kinds of supports and options that make sense for longer lives, and individuals do not yet know how to arrange their lives to make the most of these added years. However, if we view individual and population aging through the lens of growth and possibilities, we have much to gain.

Importantly, we need vision: Realizing the promise of aging is about no less than reweaving the fabric of society. We need to imagine new ways to work together for everyone’s benefit. This means rethinking social systems that too often isolate the old from the young, that fail to reap the benefits of intergenerational collaborations, and that assume older people cannot contribute.

In our vision, social policy should promote wellness, engagement and productivity throughout the lifespan. People of every generation should have the opportunity to interact and work together. Experience should be valued and utilized for everyone’s benefit.

Retirement should not be the end of an individual’s productive life. For a great many people with the ability and desire to stay active, retirement is an outdated concept that no longer makes sense. Whether as a paid employee or unpaid volunteer, many older individuals want to be productive and meaningfully engaged.

This cannot happen unless societies address harmful and misguided attitudesabout what it means to be old. We have named racism as an evil. We have identified sexism as an injustice. Ageism is equally dehumanizing and unfair, yet it is tolerated far too often. Societies will benefit by forcefully rejecting age-based prejudice and taking advantage of all that people have to offer. Stereotypes of dependent older people — and practices that foster dependence —are harmful not only to individuals but to larger communities.

If we continue to tolerate ageism in the workplace, we are robbing ourselves of the potential gains from embracing experienced employees. These workers pay back their organizations with skill, institutional knowledge, maturity and reliability. Employers should play a leading role in recasting the issue of aging by recognizing the value of experience and taking steps to optimize it, such as by encouraging mentor-mentee relationships and teamwork across generations.

Fortunately, there is a growing list of employers who have established the business case for supporting experience in their ranks, and AARP is encouraging such organizations through our program of Best Employers International. Winners have come from many regions and economic sectors. What they share is a recognition that meeting the needs of older employees, such as through flexible work schedules, fitness programs and good health care benefits, helps them maintain a competitive edge.

Research backs this up. Studies have shown that age-diverse teams can be more productive, often bringing out the best in all workers. And the benefits of an older workforce can actually provide a boost to national economies. According to the U.K. Department of Work and Pension, if their nation’s labor force were to stay on the job one year longer on average, Real Gross Domestic Product would grow 1 percent over a six year period.

So the evidence is compelling: Societies should do more to capture the benefit from all that older individuals have to offer, and not just in the workforce but in all walks of life. Countries need to do a far better job of capturing the insights and learnings that only come from experience.

Public policies should play an important role here, but often, they are fragmented or misguided. Instead of targeting separate policies on the young and old, countries should adopt a more holistic, life-course approach that recognizes that supports in childhood can have a beneficial effect throughout life. For example, access to education and health care in youth typically benefits individuals and society for many years in the form of longer and healthier lives.

And these kinds of supports should not just stop at a certain age. Consider something as basic as education. Societies can do much more to support learning as a lifelong endeavor, and they will be rewarded with a more productive older population.

Policy makers also should focus more on the gap between the healthspan — the period of life in which people are fit and active — and the total lifespan, which may include later years in which individuals contend with serious chronic conditions. Our goal should be to ensure that the healthspan can endure almost as long as the  lifespan.

Globally, we are overdue in recasting the issue of aging. World leaders need to wake up to the fact that population aging is a defining feature of life in the 21st century and develop new ways of thinking. We need creativity. Technicalinnovations have changed the way we work and play, but social innovations can have an equally big impact on our lives. Realizing the opportunity aging presents to the individual and to their community requires creative solutions, innovative thinking, and a wiliness to challenge the status quo around not only work and play, but also issues like housing, transportation, and social interactions.

This is a serious issue, because aging affects everything. Yet the challenges related to the demographics will remain intractable until we discuss solutions and think about the world’s changing age makeup in a whole new way.

The most effective strategies will involve everyone — and help everyone. Real solutions will benefit all generations.

 About the author

Dr. Debra Whitman is AARP’s chief public policy officer, leading policy development, analysis and research, as well as global thought leadership supporting and advancing the interests of individuals 50-plus and their families. She oversees AARP’s Public Policy Institute, Research Center, Office of Policy Integration and AARP International.

She is an authority on aging issues and has extensive experience in national policymaking, domestic and international research, and the political process. 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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