Health and Healthcare Systems

We're living longer than ever before. Here's how we can also live better

In our new smartphone world where longevity is the norm, it’s time to reimagine that contract.

In our new smartphone world where longevity is the norm, it’s time to reimagine that contract. Image: Claudio Schwartz/Unsplash

Ramsey L. Alwin
President and CEO, National Council on Aging
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Ageing and Longevity

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • By 2034, older adults are projected to outnumber children in the US, marking a significant demographic shift.
  • Systemic inequities disproportionately affect women, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ individuals in aging, impacting financial security and health outcomes.
  • The World Economic Forum's newly released Longevity Principles offer a framework for the future to ensure all people, not only the privileged few, can age well.

The one thing that will happen to each of us born into this world is that we will age.

How we age, however, depends on how we—as individuals and as a society—support each other through key life events and nurture the assets we need to age well. And that starts early.

The Census Bureau predicts that by 2034, older adults will outnumber children for the first time in US history. A longer life is one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. Yet not everyone will have quality of years along with quantity of years.

What impacts our ability to age well?

Systemic inequities play an outsized, negative role for far too many. Women, people of colour, LBGTQ+, low-income, and rural older adults are more likely than others to experience poor health and finances as they age—primarily because they have faced disparities across their entire lives.

What Women Say, a 2023 bipartisan survey conducted by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) and Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) showed this in stark relief. Over half of women ages 25+ surveyed said they do not consider themselves financially secure today, and 77% of low-income women said the same.

Top financial concerns for women are the cost of housing, Social Security and Medicare being cut, not having enough savings to retire, and outliving savings in retirement. Nearly half of women reported not having an employer-sponsored retirement plan, and three in four low-income women by ethnicity reported having no emergency savings.

If women of all ages feel financially insecure today, what does that mean for their ability to afford a longer life?

what women say on ageing and longevity
Image: What Women Say™, National Council on Aging and Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement (2023)

Chronic disease provides another case example of disparities in action. Chronic Inequities, an analysis by NCOA and the LeadingAge LTSS Center @ UMass Boston, found that Blacks and Hispanics/Latinos ages 60 and over have $4,000 more in average yearly costs due to chronic disease than whites, and they experience $3,000 more in average yearly lost wages due to their conditions.

This double-whammy means those with the highest health care costs have the fewest resources to pay for them.

Image: Chronic Inequities, National Council on Aging (2022)

Key life events also play a role in our ability to age well. Layoffs, caregiving responsibilities, poor health, divorce, death of a loved one, retirement, and the need for long-term care all have a substantial impact on a person’s ability to be healthy and financially resilient.

The 80% (another analysis by NCOA and the LeadingAge LTSS Center) found that 80% of older Americans—or 47 million individuals—are unable to sustain a financial shock such as needing to pay for long-term care or the loss of income due to divorce or widowhood. A full 20% have no assets to draw from as they age. Yet, statistics show that one in seven older adults will require care for more than five years as they age.

Discover

What is the World Economic Forum doing about including older people in the workforce?

Given these realities, how do we build resilience for all in this new era of longevity?

First, we must think differently about the assets that enable us to age well. We need to build our “longevity portfolio” — those factors that can make or break our well-being.

In our portfolio, we have our health; our education, skills, and work options; our relationships and social connections; our community resources; and our finances. Nurturing all these assets across a person’s life will determine whether everyone can reap the benefits of longevity.

Second, we must make this a team effort. We cannot place the burden on individuals alone. As a society, we must create and fund the resources to support all in this journey. We must strengthen and expand our workforce development, retirement, and health care systems to ensure everyone can make the most of their assets at every key life moment.

Third, we must remember that this is not a zero-sum game. Building resilience for all benefits us all. When every person has access to the support they need throughout life, every person can experience the dignity they deserve.

The World Economic Forum’s new Longevity Principles - a path forward

The World Economic Forum's newly released Longevity Principles are a perfect framework and common language to guide us. They offer us a roadmap for developing new public and private sector practices and programs to enable aging well for all.

The principles call for ensuring financial resilience across key life events; providing universal access to financial education; prioritizing healthy aging as foundational for the longevity economy; evolving jobs and lifelong skill-building for a multi-generational workforce; designing systems and environments for social connection and purpose; and intentionally addressing longevity inequalities across gender, race, and class.

These are the initiatives we must commit to and work toward together. The demographics require it.

Our social contract was designed in the age of rotary phones, when the average life expectancy was 20 years less than today. In our new smartphone world where longevity is the norm, it’s time to reimagine that contract.

Only then will aging well be a right for all, instead of a privilege for a few.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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