Our Aging Population Can Be An Economic Powerhouse

Dana Marin December 18, 2017 0 comments 0

– If We Let It –


Patrick O’Halloran is 82 years old, “but I’m still a work in progress,” he says. After a long career as a Jesuit priest and a clinical psychologist in San Francisco, O’Halloran retired to the northwest part of San Mateo, California, where he lives alone. He’s sprightly: His exercise routine includes circuit training, cardio, and boxing, and he volunteers at a nearby jail, teaching classes in mindfulness.

“It’s the saddest thing we hear people say: Our world starts to die around us before we’re ready to.”

O’Halloran’s doctor tells him he has maybe five to 10 years left living on his own, but he’s considering a move to a senior center sooner; he’s social, and he doesn’t like living without easy access to people to chat with. But there’s one sticking point. “I need to talk to young people–millennials,” he says. “At the senior center, I can sit down and schmooze, talk about jitterbugging,” he says. “But it’s all the same perspective.”


Like many people heading into their later years, O’Halloran has found himself in a bind. He’s not ready to give up on the things that give him energy–communication, conversation, sharing different experiences and perspectives–for the homogeneity of a senior center. But as an older person in America, he finds himself in a world that’s not set up to receive what he can offer. “It’s the saddest thing we hear people say: Our world starts to die around us before we’re ready to,” says Vandana Pant, the senior director of strategic initiatives for Palo Alto Medical Foundation, which provides senior care services in San Mateo, where O’Halloran lives.

Like climate change, says Paul Irving, the chair of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute, the graying of the U.S. population–and that of the whole world–is a phenomenon that has been a long time coming, but that we remain largely unprepared to confront. The fact that science has basically doubled lifespans in the past century and a half, Irving says, “is maybe the most extraordinary accomplishment in the history of mankind.” But unless we shift our attitudes and responses to aging, it will go from being a miracle to a crisis.

Underpinning both the infrastructural and economic shifts that must occur to accommodate the rapidly graying population is something more intangible: We need to adjust our overall attitude toward growing old. As a culture, we tend to treat aging as a separate phase, not an extension of the same life. “You see people in retirement communities and they’re infantilized, spoken to as if they were infants even though they’ve lived these rich lives and had remarkable experiences,” Irving says.

Our cultural and structural disregard for older populations “is almost the last prejudice we’re allowed to have,” says Kathryn Lawler, the director of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Area Agency on Aging. Which is deeply ironic: Not only is aging–if one is blessed with a long life and good health–one of the few truly universal experiences, it is something that is becoming more and more pervasive. By 2050, the global population of people aged 60 and older will rise to 2 billion, up from 900 million in 2015. Every day in the United States, 10,000 people turn 65. Between 1990 and 2013, global life expectancy rose by around six years, from 65.3 to 71.5 (removing accidental death from fatal crashes or overdoses raises these estimates by around a year). For people born today, the likelihood that they will live to triple digits is strong: A child born in 2011 has a one-in-three chance of living to her 100th birthday.

These facts invite a range of concerns, from what aging people will do with a prospective extra three decades of leisure given that the retirement age is still typically 65, to how social security could and should change in response: When the retirement security was introduced in 1935, the average life expectancy was just around 62, lower than the retirement age, which, even then, was still 65. The proportion of adults collecting social security was significantly lower when the benefit was introduced, and they would live, on average, for fewer years after stopping work. Now, that’s not the case, and the safety net is stretched to snapping. Among the middle age and younger populations, anxiety about caregiving responsibilities is growing.

In many ways, aging is a personal concern, but coping with this demographic shift will not come down to individual effort. Rather, it’s going to take a comprehensive approach–on the part of cities, communities, and companies–to make room for a population that has much to offer, and that we all, someday, will be a part of.

Read more here: Fast Company
Illustration: Oliver Munday

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