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Beyond “Retirement”: Solutions for 21st-Century Aging
posted 10.24.2012

By Michael W. Hodin

It’s official! No longer is it impossibly uncool to be over the hill. Fifty years after they formed, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys continue to pack stadiums. If the ever-exclusive, always-chic preserves of the entertainment industry are open to “seniors” who should be “retired,” it’s time to hold up the mirror: with life spans a full three decades longer than they were a century ago, how should we plan for our own aging process?

There are no simple answers. Our uniquely long life spans throw traditional norms into obsolescence, and solutions to “the aging problem” need to come from experts and stakeholders across industries—from health to technology to finance and more. This issue of Aging Today aims to provide several different and—at times—opposing points of view to help work toward solutions that can turn population aging from crisis to opportunity.

The 21st-Century Solution

What has worked in the past will not work in the future. Our 20th-century notions of aging and retirement have very little relevance in the 21st century, and it is time to create new paths to healthy, active and productive aging. This need is imperative, because not only are we living longer, but also birth rates have been steadily falling for nearly a half-century. With longer lives and fewer children growing into working-age adults, public and private entitlement systems are especially stressed. Consequently, at both personal and national levels, it is time to reinvent aging.

On a personal and familial level, the retire-at-65 model will leave most of us bankrupt and bored. According to a 2012 AEGON report, nearly 75 percent of people surveyed expect to be worse off than those currently in retirement, and only 5 percent imagine a better retirement. The primary cause for this pessimism was financial, as respondents expect Social Security funds to dry up, and pensions to become unaffordable for employers.

It’s not just a question of money, however. Dr. Mark Lachs, co-chief of Cornell’s Weill Medical College Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology, has shown how social engagement and activity are critical components to a healthy aging process. According to Lachs, “People talk about growing their nest egg for retirement. One of the other things you should be growing is a large circle of people with whom you interact.” Essentially, Lachs is arguing that healthy aging builds just as much from social activity as it does from physical activity. The retire-at-65 model too often isolates older adults from the world, leaving them without healthy social and cognitive stimulation.

Preserving National Fiscal Health

Additionally, a reinvention of aging is critical to national fiscal health. In the United States, a full 25 percent of the population will be older than 60 by 2030. If a quarter of the population quits working and begins depending upon private pensions and publicly funded social insurance programs, financial disaster is inevitable. And by 2050, another 16 million Americans will cross the 60-yearold threshold. In Europe, we are already seeing what happens when social welfare programs refuse to adapt to changing demographic realities. What is fueling the fiscal crises in Greece, Spain and much of the European Union is a mismatch between 20th-century social institutions and 21st-century demographics.

There are smart, concrete paths that can lead to a new kind of aging process, where older adults remain empowered, important members of social and economic life. To take a step back, though, and examine how we need to adapt society to better embrace the possibilities of an aging population, I offer a brief overview of four areas where we have the most work to do.

Health. Thanks to incredible advances in prevention and treatment, the number one global health threat is no longer communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Today, non-communicable diseases (NCD) like cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cardiovascular disease pose the greatest threat around the world, disabling older adults in untold numbers. And degenerative conditions such as vision loss and immobility are forcing even more adults into disabled, isolated aging processes. For both businesses and policymakers, emphasis should be given to enabling people to embark on a life course of healthy aging to prevent falling victim to NCDs and other isolating conditions.

Education. If we live to 80, 90 or even 100, what sense does it make to stop educating ourselves at age 21? The traditional university setting still has a vital role to play in educating the nation’s youth, but other programs and institutions need to fill the current educational void for older learners. Continuing education programs are a start, but businesses and the public sector need to work together to create a much larger, more work-based educational system that meets the needs of an aging population. As more and more of our work moves onto computers and tablets, aging baby boomers need to remain at the cutting edge of this change.

Work. As a number of leading businesses have shown, aging populations can drive business success. And with an expected global population of 2 billion people older than age 60 by midcentury, older adults need to be integrated into the heart of business strategy and economic growth opportunities. For some businesses, this will entail changing product and service offerings to meet the tastes, desires and needs of an older consumer base. For others, it will entail integrating older employees into the workforce. Critically, this integration cannot be a diversity initiative or a component of corporate social responsibility: It must be an essential piece of business strategy.

Housing and transportation. Finally, the full potential of population aging won’t be captured through policy initiatives and new programs to integrate older adults. We also need physical changes to our environment that foster mobility and activity for older adults. The World Health Organization (WHO) has begun an Age-Friendly Cities initiative that aims to create and model these changes in eight areas: the built environment, transport, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication, and community support and health services. While politicians and academics often get caught up in policy initiatives, it is equally important to roll out physical changes to enable older adults to remain active in society. Age-Friendly Cities like New York and Newcastle-upon-Tyne are leading the way by creating new urban infrastructure that responds to this population’s unique physical needs.

At the 2012 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, the WEF published a seminal book on aging called Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise? This question has not yet been answered. But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that the much-discussed miracle of longevity will prove to be a miracle after all. To get to where we need to be, however, we have a lot of work to do. But with hard work, we can turn peril into promise.


Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and managing director of High Lantern Group in New York City.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the November/December 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.

Photo: istockphoto/retrorocket


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