The Future of Ageing – The Global Challenge

Advances in science and technology coupled with large-scale changes in health practices involving improved sanitation, water purification, and a host of lifestyle changes have led to dramatic increases in longevity in developed nations around the world. On a global scale, life expectancies in developed regions are continuing to rise in the 21st century and, although most people assume that there are biological limits on life span, so far there is little evidence that we are approaching them.[1] Because fertility declined across the same years that life expectancies increased, the distribution of age in the global population changed irrevocably. The once-universal pyramid shapes of age distributions of populations in the western world, with many young ones at the bottom narrowing to tiny peaks at the tops, are being rectangularized, reflecting the fact that most people, not just an exceptional few, are living into old age.

To the extent that the importance of ageing societies is recognized at all, anxiety is the typical response. Terms like “grey tsunami” imply that larger numbers of older citizens will become a drain on societies. Concern is warranted. The demographic changes underway are fundamentally altering virtually all aspects of life as we know it. Workforces are becoming older and more age diversified than ever in history. Families are having fewer children, yet four and five generations are alive at the same time. Education has come to predict well-being and even length of life, yet is unevenly distributed, creating heightened disparities across socioeconomic strata accentuating old age outcomes between rich and poor.

[1] Oeppen, J. and J. W. Vaupel: Broken limits to life expectancy. Science 296, 1029-1031 (2002).

The Future of Ageing – Options and Possibilities

To date, however, the concern has been largely misplaced, with the emphasis on aging as opposed to an emphasis on the cultures that surrounds very long lives. By culture, we are referring to the crucible that holds science, technology, and large scale behavioral practices and social norms. We maintain that the more serious problems concern antiquated social norms and the lack of cultural supports for people 50 and older, such as medical treatments for common diseases of old age and technologies and services that allow people to age in place, and social norms that encourage life-long participation in communities, families and workplaces. The culture that guides people through life today is a culture that evolved around shorter lives. The urgent challenge now is to create cultures that support people through ten and more decades of life.

Although predictions about the future are always perilous, we can comfortably predict that life will change and can change such that longer lives improve quality of life at all ages. Unfortunately to date we have been decidedly uncreative about ways to use added years of life. These years have been tacitly tacked on to the end of life, with old age the only stage in life that has gotten longer. Rather than move forward by happenstance, we need strategic thinking about how to best use added decades of life. Helping individuals and nations visualize, plan and prepare is essential in order to ensure that longer lives are high quality.

Changing the nature, timing and duration of work will be key. Individuals and societies must effectively finance very long lives and so far we are doing a poor job. Life expectancy at age 65 for the world’s population increased by roughly fifty percent from the 1950s to the present time, while the average age of retirement has remained relatively constant. [1] Between now and 2030, the number of people in developed countries over the “conventional” retirement age of 65 will increase by more than thirty percent. At the same time, the size of the conventional working-age population in developed countries is projected to decline by four percent. To the extent that nothing changes, the ratio of the working-age population to retirees will steadily decrease in the foreseeable future. Of course, these projections are based on the assumption that people continue to retire at relatively young ages. One obvious, although surprisingly ignored, way to address the challenges posed by the declining number and share of working-age population is to expand the workforce by increasing the workforce participation of older workers and, in some countries, women.

Increasingly, research findings suggest that this is feasible. A substantial majority of people 60 to 70 years of age report that they are physically able to work. A 2014 paper published in the Journal of Gerontology found that 85% of Americans aged 65-69 report no health-based limitations on paid work or housework.[2] Similar trends are evident in Europe. [3] To be sure, the numbers of disabled individuals has, and will continue to, increase in aging societies and it is extremely important to have policies that support people who cannot work. We maintain that the generosity of disability insurance should increase, yet we must recognize that chronological age is a poor predictor of the ability to work. Even at very advanced ages, substantial numbers of people are sufficiently healthy to contribute to workplaces. Societies that find ways to tap older peoples’ contributions will benefit greatly.

Although the idea of longer working lives often meets resistance, evidence for the benefits of work to individuals is growing. Arguably, the most obvious reason to work longer is the financial benefit. For many, retirement at age 65 is economically infeasible. In the words of Stanford economist John Shoven, “the reality is that few workers can fund a 30 year retirement with a 40 year career”.[4] Neither can societies. In recent years, it is becoming clear that remaining active and engaged in work is also associated with physical, socioemotional, and cognitive benefits. Studies of healthy aging suggest that older adults who are engaged have lower mortality rates, are less likely to experience various physical and mental illnesses, and are more likely to have a strong sense of identity and well-being.[5] Working longer also has protective effects against cognitive decline, [6] ostensibly by providing a mentally engaging environment where workers can “use it” so they don’t “lose it.” Research suggests that both paid and unpaid work are associated with enhanced well-being, delayed disability, decreased mortality risk, and onset of fewer diseases and associated functional impairments. [7],[8],[9],[10] New models of working longer can relieve some of the pressure to save large sums of money for extended periods of leisure. Importantly, working longer can mean working differently. Many workers would be happy to exchange decades-long retirements in old age for four day work weeks, regular time off for sabbaticals, retraining, and part-time work when children are young as well as at advanced ages as people fade into retirement.

[1] “Population Facts”, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, December, 20-13

[2] Lowsky, Olshansky, Bhattacharya, Goldman, “Heterogeneity in Healthy Aging”, J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci first published online November 17, 2013 doi:10.1093/gerona/glt162

[3] A. Börsch-Supan, Myths, Scientific Evidence and Economic Policy in an Aging World, J. Econ. Ageing, 1–2 (2013), pp. 3–15

[4] Ford, John Patrick. 2014. “How to support a 30-year retirement.” San Diego Source.

[5] Rowe, John W. and Robert L. Kahn. 1998. Successful Aging. New York: Pantheon; Cohen, Sheldon. 2004. “Social Relationship and Health.” American Psychologist 59:676-684.

[6] Rohwedder, Susann and Robert J. Willis. 2010. “Mental Retirement.” Journal of Economic Perspectives. 24:119-138

[7] Rohwedder, Susann, and Robert J. Willis. 2010. “Mental Retirement.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24(1): 119-38.

[8] Carr DC, Komp K, editors. “Gerontology in the era of the third age: implications and next steps.” New York: Springer Publishers; 2011: 207-224

[9] Morrow-Howell N, Hinterlong J, Rozario PA, Tang F. “Effects of volunteering on the well-being of older adults.”   J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2003; 58B:S137–S145. Doi: 10.1093/geronb/58.3.S137

[10] Matz-Costa C, Besen E, James JB, Pitt-Catsouphes M. “Differential impact of multiple levels of productive activity engagement on psychological well-being in middle and later life.” The Gerontologist. 2012. Doi: 10.1093/geront/gns148

The Future of Ageing – Proposed Way Forward

From a societal perspective, there is a pressing need to make use of the human capital represented in older people. General knowledge and expertise increase with age, as do emotional stability and the motivation to invest in important activities. If appropriately utilized, older populations can benefit national and global economies. Yet the clarion call to workers today is about saving for increasingly long retirements, instead of actively planning to work longer. In the US, the responsibility for saving has shifted to the individual, reflecting the move from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans. Unfortunately, the change has resulted in considerable undersaving for retirements. In a 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey, only 64% of all workers age 25 and older reported that they and their spouse had saved at all for retirement, a decrease from 75% in 2009. [1] Overall, 60% of workers report that they have less than $25,000 in total savings and investments, with over one third reporting less than $1,000 in total savings.[2] If appropriate steps are not taken, there could be catastrophic economic implications to both individuals and societies, as low retirement savings could lead to major strains on economies.


For those who have inadequate retirement savings, the most obvious solution is to work longer. This approach may hold benefits that extend beyond income to include better physical health and cognitive functioning. One major potential barrier, however, is that employers remain ambivalent about older workers. Currently, most employers’ view older workers as expensive and sometimes less productive than younger workers. Research findings increasingly suggest that the latter reflects stereotypes more than evidence. The productivity of workers tends to increase with age. This is especially true for knowledge workers, yet blue collar workers also can retain (and perhaps increase) productivity.[3] One study that measured the performance of more than 400 McDonald’s restaurants across the UK found that restaurants that employed mixed-age workforces, including workers age 60 and above, delivered an average increase of twenty percent in customer satisfaction levels compared to less age diverse workforces.[4] Moreover, there is a net benefit of intergenerational teams on workplace productivity, including a broader range of skills and experience across the workforce, increased mentorship opportunities and skills transfer, a reduction in turnover, and increased staff morale.[5],[6] Companies that adapt to older workers’ needs using cost-efficient measures such as flexible work arrangements, workplace modifications, and on-the-job training can benefit from age diversity in the workforce. [7] BMW’s older worker production line at Dingolfing is an example of how thoughtful design of blue-collar workplaces can support high levels of productivity in older workers. The company collaborated with its older production workers to tailor one of its most labor intensive manufacturing lines to an average worker age of 47. The resultant line reached its production goals with defect rate and worker absenteeism meeting or exceeding the levels achieved by “younger” lines.[8] The cost of older workers is a real issue for employers. By leveraging older workers as source of human capital, employers can better manage their talent, facilitate knowledge transfer to younger workers, and help older workers slowly phase into retirement. Offering bridge jobs or flexible work arrangements such as flex hours and part-time work will allow employers to retain the expertise of older workers while reducing costs.[9],[10]

[1] Employee Benefit Research Institute. 2014. “2014 Retirement Confidence Survey.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Burtless, G.(2013).The Impact of Population Aging and Delayed Retirement on Work-force Productivity. Tech. rep., Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

[4] Department for Work and Pensions (UK). 2011. “Employing Older Worker Case Studies.”

[5] Ilmakunnas et al. “Diversity at the workplace: Whom does it benefit?” Helsinki School of Economics.

[6] Department for Work and Pensions (UK). 2013. “Employing an Older Workforce, An Employer’s Guide to Today’s Multi-generational Workforce.

[7] Brooks. 2014. “Productivity and Age.” Age UK.

[8] Loch, C.H, Sting, F.J, Bauer, N, & Mauermann, H. (2010). How BMW Is Defusing the Demographic Time Bomb. Harvard Business Review, 88(3), 99–102. Retrieved from

[9] CIPD. 2012. “Managing a Healthy Ageing Workforce, A National Business Imperative.”

[10] Backes-Glenner & Veen. 2009. “The Impact of Aging and Age Diversity on Company Performance.” Institute for Strategy and Business Economics, University of Zurich.         Gellner_The_impact_of_aging_and_age_diversity_on_company_performance-V.pdf

The Future of Ageing – Impacts and Implications

Dire predictions that a “Grey Tsunami” will overwhelm economies with unproductive societies harken back to Thomas Malthus’ 1798 “Essay on the Principle of Population”. There, Malthus predicted that growing populations would outrun the food supply, leading to poverty and starvation. The prediction did not foresee the development of agricultural technologies that greatly increased food production. In the case of older populations, predictions about economic disaster change to discussions of economic growth if people remain productive into advanced ages. Rather than a problem, we may be experiencing one of the greatest opportunities ever in history to dramatically improve quality of life at all ages.