May 8th 2017
We all know that people are living longer and healthier, but the ageing of the population often tends to be viewed in negative terms, calling it a “burden”, even a “tsunami.” I may have used it before in my blogs, but one of the most extreme statements I have found was in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 2002 –
”The ramifications (of ageing) could be serious as the elderly become an additional burden to the traditional scourges of poverty and disease.”
Let’s try to be more positive. A World Economic Forum report in 2012 did so when the authors listed the “Opportunities arising from a longer, healthier life.”
- A longer and more flexible working life. The number of people of traditional working age is shrinking. In New Zealand, along with many developed countries, there will soon be more people leaving the labour force than entering it. Mature-age workers, 60 or 65 plus, are becoming a valuable resource, and far-sighted employers are seeking to keep them on, recognising their experience, wisdom and loyalty. The balance in working conditions will change in favour of practices that promote higher levels of labour force participation among older people. These include flexibility, technological adjustment and access to retraining.
- Volunteering and community contributions. There is little doubt that many older adults make a valuable contribution to society through voluntary community engagement. This may take the form of civic engagement – representing consumer views; support for vulnerable groups; environmental protection; and assistance with education, healthcare and recreational services.
- Enhanced social skills. Research shows that many older adults are better at interpersonal communication and less prone to immediate emotional reactions than persons of a younger age. Grandparents often act as mediators in family conflicts. “People skills” are also particularly valuable for a service-based economy. I am sure I am not alone in appreciating the informed advice of older handymen in the hardware shops.
- Redesigned environments. As I have mentioned in recent blogs, creating age-friendly environments not only enhances the social participation of older adults, but improves living for all ages. It also stimulates business innovation in designing a more varied and flexible built environment. And new building and retrofitting gives rise to employment opportunities in construction, transport and related industries.
- New markets, new consumers. It is estimated that people over the age of 60 hold more than 50% of the wealth in developed societies, with a similar trend occurring in emerging countries. This was found to be true for New Zealand in “The Business of Ageing.” The considerable economic potential of the “silver market” is only just beginning to be tapped.
- Intergenerational financial transfers. Contrary to the view that older generations are a burden on younger ones, most transfers run down the generational tree rather than up it, when viewed across the life course. Parents and grandparents give their children and grandchildren the best start in life they can. Such financial transfers can help to reduce barriers to home-ownership which are becoming serious in this country. Also, older taxpayers show no indication of refusing to pay for large infrastructural projects for which they may never reap the full personal benefit. As the World Economic Forum says, “It may be more accurate to talk about generational altruism rather than generational burdens”.
- Caring and family cohesion. Older people, particularly women, engage in unpaid care work. This contribution not only frees up others for the workforce, such as their adult children, it currently saves their national economies considerable costs. According to the 2013 Census, there were almost 10,000 grandparents acting in parental roles and very many more who help with part-time childcare. When a shrinking population of working age is combined with increased female participation, certain sectors – such as the aged-care workforce – will come under particular strain unless these skills are recognised. The recent decision to improve pay equity in this workforce is a welcome step in this direction.
- John R. Beard, Simon Biggs, David E. Bloom, Linda P. Fried, Paul Hogan, Alexandre Kalache, and S. Jay Olshansky, eds. (2012) Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise, World Economic Forum,
2. Ministry of Social Development (2011) The Business of Ageing: Realising the economic potential of older people in New Zealand, 2011 to 2051. Ministry of Social Development and Office for Senior Citizens, Wellington. Also – The Business of Ageing: 2013 update.
People have value beyond their contribution to the economy…when will our society recognise this? We continue to grow and develop throughout our life … which earlier societies recognised and so created specific and different roles for older people to enable them to continue to contribute.
Our society only has one role for people …economic production and consumption… so the solution to people living longer is for people to work longer. While some may wish to do this others may not …for physical reasons often, or for psychological development reasons. Not all of us want to remain stuck in our middle years …. forever on the treadmill of production and consumption!
If our society recognised our 60+ yrs as a new, different developmental stage in life we could enable people to offer their quiet, calm, reflective energy to balance the manic busyness our youth oriented society urges. If we encouraged older people to be our future thinkers, which they are naturally disposed to being through the birth of grandchildren and their closer identification with nature through addressing the much larger questions in life … and we tapped into their life wisdom (not just their work skills and knowledge) we could bring long-term thinking to so many of our social and environmental problems. We just keep reinventing the wheel with short term, limited perspectives and thinking…and the need for instant action …. which we’re predisposed to do in our early and middle years.
There are so many valuable roles older people could play in our modern society if we encouraged people to continue to develop and acknowledged the fruits of this later development.