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Future of Ageing

Despite a recent dip in the life expectancy of people in the United States, the general trend in recent decades has seen a perpetual march upwards of the average life expectancy. 

By: Adi Gaskell, Katerva’s Futurist 


Despite a recent dip in the life expectancy of people in the United States, the general trend in recent decades has seen a perpetual march upwards of the average life expectancy.  Indeed, in 1900, the typical person would live to around their mid 40s, which is approximately half what it is in many developed countries today.

This has prompted a rethink away from simply trying to maintain this rising life expectancy, and towards trying to ensure that the extra years we do have are healthy and prosperous.  It’s a distinction aptly described by London Business School’s Lynda Gratton as the longevity blessing rather than the longevity curse.

In their recent book, The 100-Year Life, they highlight how if we get this wrong, we could be forcing people not only to work longer into old age, but force them to live with a growing number of comorbidities that provide precious little quality of life.  To achieve a blessed old age, we need quality of years, not just quantity.

As you might expect from a business school professor, Gratton’s book focuses primarily on working matters, including retirement, education and a rupture of the traditional ‘three stage life’ that sees us study-work-retire, and a shift towards a multistage life where these things are far more fluid.

Growing old gracefully

These are undoubtedly important, and will be touched on in the remaining articles on this topic this month, but they are not the only concern society faces in terms of our ageing populations.  A report from the UK’s Government Office for Science explores a wide range of issues involved in the greying of the western world, from healthcare to urban planning.

“Will the growing number of people in later life be predominantly empowered, skilled, healthy and able to contribute fully to society?,” the report asks. “Or will we be increasingly unhealthy, disempowered and dependent?” 

The report breaks its findings down into a number of key areas:

    • Working life – It is highly likely that people will be working for longer, but the workplace remains riddled with ageism that can diminish our ability to get the most out of a hugely valuable portion of the workforce.  People like Airbnb’s Chip Conley have worked tirelessly to try and redraw the narrative around the value of older people in the workplace, and highlight the crucial role these ‘elders’ can play.
    • Lifelong learning – For older people to remain relevant in the workforce of tomorrow, however, it is also highly likely that learning will need to become a lifelong endeavor.  As Gratton emphasizes, the old model of going to school and/or university, and then working for several decades before retiring is largely a thing of the past, and as we adapt to the changing needs of society and our ability to bring value to the labor market, we will need to continuously learn and adapt our skills to maintain our value.
    • Changing housing needs – There is widespread evidence that living independently in an environment whereby we maintain a rich social and physical lifestyle is beneficial as we age, but questions remain about whether our communities are suitably equipped for a growing number of households headed by someone aged 85 or over.  Are housing developments looking sufficiently beyond the building to develop real neighborhoods and community.
    • A new role for families – For centuries, families have played a fundamental role in our lives, yet as labor mobility has increased, it’s common for families to disperse to different towns, maybe even different countries.  This places a strain on the provision of care for elderly people as what may previously have been undertaken by family members is increasingly done by healthcare professionals.
    • Healthy aging – If we are to ensure that older people don’t just live longer, but live longer in good health, it will require a transformation of healthcare away from only intervening when someone is sick towards trying to ensure people remain healthy for longer.  This will almost certainly involve a wide range of new technologies to help monitor people’s health and activity, providing early detection of any problems that may arise.

 

  • Maintaining social networks – Loneliness and isolation are significant barriers to overcome if people are to age healthily, and so ensuring that people are able to connect to work, health, social and educational opportunities are all crucial.  This may involve a rethink around our physical transport infrastructure, with greater deployment of autonomous technology an option to ensure mobility is maintained, but also a greater use of digital technologies to ensure people remain connected to the world, and the world with them.

 

“The ageing population presents opportunities to individuals and society,” the report concludes.  “However, as with any major demographic change, it also presents challenges and ignoring these could undermine the potential benefits of living longer.”

Over the remainder of this month, I will explore some of the issues outlined above in more detail, and examine how we can secure the longevity blessing both for ourselves and for society as a whole.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!
Strategic Media Partner