Youth Perspectives

Scared of growing old? Now you don’t have to be

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Youth Perspectives

One of the most impressive signs of recent human progress is the increase in life expectancy. Globally, life expectancy for both men and women rose from 65.3 years in 1990 to 71.5 years in 2013. In Europe, anyone born after 2011 has a one in three chance of living to see their 100th birthday.

But this remarkable progress comes with its own set of problems. Klaus Schwab, the World Economic Forum’s founder and executive chairman, has described ageing as “one of the most significant risks to global prosperity in the decades ahead”. Take Europe – the “old continent” in more ways than one. Not only are people there living longer, they’re also having fewer children than in the past. Governments are left wondering how a smaller working-age population will cover the increasing number of retirees.

figure 1.png

Source: Eurostat and Reuters

It’s not just governments concerned about the consequences of an ageing population: citizens are, too. According to a survey carried out by Pfizer, 87% of Americans said they were scared of growing old. The superficial things – wrinkles, grey hair and wobbly bits – can be worrying enough. But what about the even bigger questions: will we get by on our pensions? Will we even have one? Will physical ailments prevent us from living a fulfilling life? Will we end up alone? Will we maintain our mental agility?

For all our worrying, things might not be as bad as they seem. According to a Pew survey from 2009, we fret over age-related issues at far higher rates than they are actually experienced. For example, while 57% of people under the age of 65 say they’re scared of losing their memory in old age, only 25% of people over 65 say they suffer from this. And for 24% of under-65s who worry about having financial troubles in retirement, only 16% of over-65s say they have had this problem.

figure 2

Source: Pew Research Center

And thanks to technological advancements, growing old just got even easier. As Joseph Coughlin, the director of MIT’s AgeLab, recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal article, “the next-generation retiree will have an unprecedented array of technologies to invent a new future for working part time, remaining social, having fun, living at home, staying healthy and arranging care”. Here are the four ways he thinks technology will help us make the most of our golden years.

1. Staying connected

In the Guardian’s latest Ageing Population survey, 60% of respondents said they were worried about loneliness in old age. And loneliness has bigger health risks than most people imagine: research has found that lacking social connections can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

But thanks to tools like Skype, old people can stay connected to relatives and friends in far-flung places more easily than in the past. And soon, Coughlin points out, you won’t be speaking through your laptop or mobile phone: “Imagine an entire wall of the home projecting images of distant friends, letting people share coffee together.”

Social media is also starting to help old people maintain existing connections and build new ones. While we might think only millennials are interested in Facebook and dating apps, more and more older people are getting on board. As they do, communities dedicated to their needs are popping up – from OurTime.com for single over-50s to Connected Living for people living in retirement homes.

figure 3

Source: Pew Research Center

2. Staying mobile

Mobility is one of the main ways to maintain independence in old age. But as some high-profile car crashes involving seniors in places like the US and the UK have shown, for some drivers, there comes an age when they are a danger to themselves, their passengers and pedestrians.

New technologies – automatic parking, collision warnings, blind-spot detection – could help these drivers stay on the road longer. And when it really is time to surrender your licence, self-driving cars will take over: “All a retiree will have to do is text their self-driving car to pull up and take them anywhere,” says Coughlin.

3. Staying fit and healthy in your own home

According to a 2013 American study, senior citizens are more scared of having to move into a nursing home than they are of dying. A few years earlier, an NBC poll asked 28,000 Americans what they feared most about growing old. Almost a third of them said not being able to take care of themselves.

But thanks to technological developments, more of us will be able to stay in good shape and remain in our homes as we get older.

Smart devices will monitor vital signs such as pulse rates and blood pressure, alerting a physician to any issues. Robots operated by remote nurses will limit the need for constant doctor’s appointments. And once-mundane household objects like mirrors will be able to scan someone’s face to monitor risks of a heart attack or stroke. The internet of things “promises to allow retirees to stay on top of their health,” writes Coughlin.

4. Keep earning

For many people, retirement not only means adjusting to a new budget – it also requires what the American Psychological Association calls a psychological adjustment. What do you do with all the spare time? How do you find structure in your life?

Thanks to the internet – which an increasing number of over-65s are starting to use – it’s becoming easier for older people to fill that gap, and sometimes make some extra money from it.

adults online

Source: Pew Research Center

Sites such as Task Rabbit, Rover and Airbnb let people earn money for things like cooking, dog-walking or renting out a spare room. Retirement, once the end of a career, could be the start of a new one, thanks to this gig economy.

Have you read?
Would you want to live to 120?
How the internet is connecting the elderly
Why aged care needs an Uber moment

Author: Stéphanie Thomson is an editor at the World Economic Forum

Image: Donald Smitherman, 98, kisses his wife Marlene at the end of a dance in Sun City, Arizona REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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