The ageing population is growing in both size and capabilities.i This trend, alongside the promise of advances in technology and medicine, invites us to imagine what a world in which people live longer, more active, healthier lives might look like and to shift the context of the discussions on ageing from it being a burden to seeing it as an opportunity.
The global population is ageing. By 2050, 2 billion will be 60+, representing 21% of the population.ii
As ageing is associated with mental and physical degenerative processes, the current perception of the aged population is one of it being a burden on the productive, working age population and increasing pressure on the economy. Today’s policy responses to the challenges posed by an ageing population are within the limits of this perspective: raising the retirement age, providing continuous job training, lowering pension benefits and encouraging personal financial planning for retirement. However, these responses are unsustainable, for fiscal, economic and societal reasons. Perhaps of even greater concern, though, our thinking seems to be mired in today’s modalities. Shaped by scientific discoveries, the future might reveal a new, more positive and opportunity-driven societal framing of ageing.
Imagine a world in which humans can enjoy cognitive and physical health on demand; where ageing cells can be switched on and off.iii A world in which we can live and remain active well beyond today’s retirement age. Advancements such as prosthetics, brain-to-computer interfaces and biological engineering could allow us to maintain or replace capabilities, while a more holistic medical approach to ageing, increased understanding of human genomics and positive effects of nutrition on health outcomes could allow us to design prolongation of healthy, productive life.
In conjunction with their increased capabilities, today’s elderly are expressing a greater willingness to remain active and productive. This demographic craves more flexible working conditions and entrepreneurial careers. In parallel, companies have begun to “re-appreciate” experienced employees and to cater towards “silver industry” consumer demands.
Above and beyond the structural shifts in consumer markets emanating from a majority of consumers becoming aged, but remaining healthy and active, demographic evolution holds even more profound opportunities.
Retiring “retirement”: In addition to the fiscal relief that might emerge from an active aged population decreasing pressure on pension schemes, this shift also offers governments and businesses the opportunity to rethink how they can meaningfully support the organization of people’s changing life spans.
For many of us, the current organization of our life spans follows a predictable pattern: study, work, retire, expire. As we come to envision longer productive life horizons will we make different choices, for example, through fragmentation or rebalancing of our work-life duality? Will we face different constraints such as the need for significant and ongoing retraining as the economy in which we serve evolves?
If the demand for traditional – private or public – retirement plans fades, who will be the main providers of capital building schemes to support people’s desire to have non-revenue generating periods in their lives?
Closing the gender gap: Regeneration or other techniques might allow us to redesign the biological life cycle, offering the opportunity for women to achieve equal outcomes to men in the labour market.
Many women who pursue a professional career are compelled to spend the period between ages 20 and 40 building their professional lives, bearing children and perhaps caring for ageing parents. As more women enter the workforce, society might come to revisit ethics around interventions to postpone the “biological clock”. Case in point: Apple and Facebook have begun paying for women to freeze their eggs. With the option to significantly postpone childbearing, women could smooth out the pursuit of their professional and private aspirations over time and progress in society and in the economy on a more equal/even basis with men.
Building a society unprecedentedly rich in wisdom: Enhanced intergenerational dialogue and collaboration might allow us to build a new social construct in which all generations find purpose.
Currently, a tendency for intergenerational competition in a zero-sum game framework can be seen across societies. This is, for example, very observable in the labour market, where we see trade-offs between, on one side, promoting employment for young people and, on the other side, promoting experienced workers and securing retirement ages and benefits. In democratic systems, at least, the aged population as a political class is likely to win such a clash in the short term.
As a society we need to think innovatively to find solutions to these generational trade-offs. Can we imagine a non-zero-sum game? How might we translate the richness of generational diversity into an intergenerational dividend?
On a personal level, most of us would consider the possibility of living longer, more active, healthy lives as a fantastic opportunity. Translating this enthusiasm to the societal level fosters openings for innovative thinking on how we might create a future blessed with meaning − for all generations.
i A Danish study has shown that 90-year-olds perform better in cognitive and physical performance over time. See: “Over-90s ‘defying mental decline’”. Helen Briggs for BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/health-23252763, 11 July 2013.
ii See: World Population Ageing 2013. 2013. New York: United Nations, xii.
iii In September 2014, scientists from the SALK Institute for Biological Studies discovered an on/off switch for ageing cells.
This piece is one of a number of individual perspectives from the Global Strategic Foresight Community of the World Economic Forum for the Annual Meeting 2015. To read more access the full collection.
Author: Kristel van der Elst is the Senior Director, Head of Strategic Foresight at the World Economic Forum.