Now a decade old, The Elders, whose founding leader was Nelson Mandela, is a who’s who of senior world leaders, including Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Graca Machel, Mary Robinson, and Ban Ki-moon. Peter Gabriel, who was instrumental in the formation of the group, explained its genesis: “In traditional societies, elders always had a role in conflict resolution, long-term decision-making, and applying wisdom where it was needed; now in our global village, we need our global elders.”
Consider the implications of this group: Its mission is to create unified action to help resolve some of the world’s most intractable challenges. Its leaders demonstrate that our longer lives have created unprecedented social capital, which our country and our world desperately need. These leaders offer a model for how to harness this energy to secure the future that we want for our children and grandchildren, and become a critical foundation for successfully aging societies.
As The Elders demonstrate, the assets and the critical mass of older adults globally can be the force we need for a better future.
Their mission offers a peek into the design opportunity of the 21st century: to create a new societal paradigm built on the assets of our longer lives, and provide the missing piece to building a better future for all.
One need only look at world events to see urgent needs. From massive immigration and population shifts to climate change to threats of conflict, violence, and war, the list goes on. Governance systems around the world are anachronistic for the rapid changes and long-term perspectives demanded by our challenges, and leaders are struggling to create enough popular support for the transformations we need.
And then, of course, there is the worry that attending to this new, large generation of older people in the world can itself distract or even bankrupt us.
When we are confronted with all of these concerns, it seems easy to miss the point of the immense achievement that societies accomplished over the 20th century: We are becoming a world in which life expectancy at birth is 76 years old. By 2050, 20 percent of the world’s population—2 billion people—will be 60 or older. Yet having added more than 30 years to our life expectancy, we don’t have a vision for what to do with those added years.
Older adults want to continue to have an impact.
It is worth a look at just how we managed to reach this remarkable moment. Decreases in death during childhood and at childbirth from infectious diseases and environmental causes—primarily through public health investments, coupled with education, poverty alleviation, and, more recently, medical care—have led to longer, healthier lives. Now almost every country has gone past what social scientists have called the First Demographic Dividend, which resulted from the transition from the high mortality of an agrarian society to one with predictable declines in child mortality, declining fertility rates, and children living to adulthood. Those grown children then created a large bulge of productive workers, which is the world’s Second Demographic Dividend. Most societies are now at various stages of this Second Demographic Dividend, which can induce accumulation of national wealth and greater individual savings across longer lives. However, its power is dependent on young people succeeding. Too many, though, are undereducated and jobless. In fact, some developing countries worry that they are wasting their demographic dividend by not having enough jobs for their young adults to create economic advancement.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity of the 21st century is to envision and create a society that nurtures longer lives not only for the sake of the older generation but also for the benefit of all age groups—what I call a Third Demographic Dividend. To get there requires a collective grand act of imagination to create a vision for the potential of longer lives. With the proper investment, we can harness the untapped opportunities of aging societies.
There is growing evidence that generations within a family offer real support to one another and that there is a high return on investment for government programs that include older people in the definition of family.
But this will take work. Our current policy metrics are outdated for this new opportunity. For instance, one common measure of how the working age population can support those who are older and dependent is the Old Age Dependency Ratio (OADR). It tells us that we will have decreasing ability to support a growing and presumably dependent older population because the working age population is shrinking. But this ratio biases us against the value of older adults, who are the world’s only increasing natural resource. Relying on this outdated ratio, many policymakers are seeing only a problem—and not a solution.
As The Elders demonstrate, the assets and the critical mass of older adults globally can be the force we need for a better future. And already we are starting to appreciate some of the opportunities provided by aging societies. Not least is that the productivity and expertise of older workers are increasingly substantiated and valued, and we see greater interest by older adults in continuing to work for pay after age 60. At the same time, they are a new market for products and services geared to those 60 and older. New products and services can mean more jobs and opportunities for prosperity.
But this potential can be realized only if we debunk a number of myths about older people. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the evidence indicates that:
Indeed, many older people already know this. Challenging the stereotypes of dependency, many older people don’t seem to want to retire, do nothing, and divorce themselves from interactions with their families and the world. Rather, many want to find ways to stay engaged. Whether it is the rural elders throughout the world organizing programs to improve opportunities for young people and lifting up the well-being of the whole community, or the countless older adults providing hours of service through their churches, synagogues, or mosques, or as poll workers, or in service programs, older adults are assuming roles for the betterment of their communities. In studies conducted in Mexico, the United States, Spain, Germany, Lithuania, Japan, Australia, and Kenya, the findings have been the same: Fulfilled generativity—that notion of the pleasure derived from nurturing younger generations—is a key factor in life satisfaction for older adults.
We have also learned that older adults actually seek to use their time to have impact and want to improve the future for others. When I started Experience Corps in Baltimore in the mid-1990s with Marc Freedman and Tom Endres, we saw it as a new model for senior service with far-reaching benefits. The program assigned older volunteers to serve in public elementary schools to help children succeed academically. At the same time, the health of the older volunteers improved while schools and communities involved grew stronger. In the early years of the program, I did a lot of the shoe-leather recruiting of volunteers. Our potential recruits’ question was always: Will this matter? Will this program, in which we work together, have more impact than I can have alone?
Older adults want to continue to have an impact. One reason is that it’s good for them: There is actually a name sociologists use for those who retire with no daily expectations for themselves—the “roleless role.” And we are learning that days without meaning and purpose deprive people of a key part of successful aging: knowing that you left the world better than you found it. Further, full retirement leads to ill health and depression for many. Data from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration, show that complete retirement leads to a 23 to 29 percent increase in difficulties associated with mobility and daily activities, an 8 percent increase in illnesses, and an 11 percent decline in mental health. Conversely, data from all regions of the world show that paid work and volunteering in older age contribute independently to the maintenance of physical and mental health in aging.
It is critical to note that the popular impression—at least in the United States—that older people don’t contribute to society does not hold up under scrutiny. Rather, the unpaid contributions of older people to society have high value, but we don’t have adequate metrics to show this. For example, in the U.S., the hours of in-kind informal caregiving by older adults in 2012 had an economic value of $160 billion, and volunteering was valued at $78 billion. This is equivalent to what the United States pays for long-term care.
But the Old Age Dependency Ratio, as I’ve noted earlier, does not capture this value, even as policymakers rely on it as the basis for decision-making. The metric compares the number of 18- to 64-year-olds in the population with the number of people 65 and older, assuming that the younger ones are productive workers and the older are dependent. This misses the fact that older people are neither uniformly dependent nor nonproductive, leaving us without metrics that capture the value of their contributions. If the OADR was modified so that only those who are 65 and dependent are compared with the working age population, the OADR for the U.S. would improve by one-third. Metrics that assume all older adults are dependent indicate that society can’t afford social protections, missing the value of the contributions to society and future generations that older people bring.
Finally, beyond debunking these economic opportunities and negative myths, we also now have evidence that the attributes of older age, if nurtured on an individual and societal basis, would allow older adults to greatly strengthen our collective future. For example, this means policymakers need to redefine “family” to include elder members. There is growing evidence that generations within a family offer real support to one another and that there is a high return on investment for government programs that include older people in the definition of family. A South African study found that older grandmothers in townships who received pensions had granddaughters who became taller and healthier and stayed in school longer. This complements one of the explicit intentions of the creation of the Social Security system in the United States: that it was to be a family policy, with income for older adults serving to protect the standard of living of their younger family members who might otherwise have to support them.
We are also gaining more knowledge about the unique assets of older adults. Research indicates that older adults have knowledge and expertise in problem solving, experience in handling complex problems, and more optimistic outlooks, and that many have developed their own subjective judgments about what is important in life. These assets could be combined with the generative needs of older adults.
We could design new roles for older age, as The Elders have, to capitalize on age-associated abilities and meet goals. Older age can be a pay-it-forward stage of life, in which the needs of older adulthood could be aligned with the world’s needs to protect and create a better future.
But most existing jobs in the world were designed when life expectancy was 47, and roles have generally not been designed for the assets of older age. Jobs and volunteer roles don’t make use of the integrative problem-solving and creative capabilities of older age, and they are not designed for high generative impact or taken to scale for benefits to society.
The evidence now indicates that if we increased investments in three key areas—education, health care, and social institutions—in every country, we could unlock the untapped opportunities of our longer lives, create meaningful and important roles for the last third of life, meet world needs more effectively, and build successful aged societies.
Greater investment in education at every stage of life would prepare all generations for the future, especially in a world increasingly reliant on technology.
More investment in health care would unlock the opportunities of longer lives, because we now know that at least half of the chronic health concerns of older age can be prevented. Those who arrive at age 70 healthy are tracked to stay that way, and even the frailty and dementia of older age can be delayed or prevented. Education and health are synergistic, with new evidence showing a 25 percent decline in dementia rates in the U.S. in the past 12 years among those who have high school or greater education and access to health-promoting and disease prevention resources and healthy environments.
Finally, with increased support for new social institutions, we can unleash the generative goals and unique assets of older adults at scale while also designing for the health of older adults. The Elders are just one inspiration for this approach. There are others, such as Experience Corps, which has shown that high-intensity 15-hour-per-week service strengthens children’s academic success, older adults’ cognitive and physical health, school climate, and teacher effectiveness.
Although there have been any number of examples like these—and many more could be imagined—they have not been taken to scale to have the wide impact necessary.
The past decades have given us the evidence and direction to capitalize on this transformational moment. The assets of longer lives and societal investments in health, education, long-term care, and social protections, and in new roles for later life, can help solve our thorniest challenges, build social cohesion, strengthen our communities, and position youth for greater success. Further, creating metrics that can show the value of this Third Demographic Dividend will enable us to better meet the needs, and handle the costs, of aging societies.
Time is of the essence; no country is prepared. Over the next 40 years, young people will not just survive—a major accomplishment of human investment—but will become the older adults in an aged society. Their countries need to be ready for them.