Facts of Life

I saw a show on the BBC recently about aging in the UK. There were several very interesting aspects to the story. First, the population in nursing homes has changed dramatically in the past 20 years: previously, most residents were in their 70s and today most are in their 90s. And most are women—not surprising given World War II and life expectancy trends.

The consensus of experts here is that a combination of healthier habits and lifestyles, better medical technologies, and increasing access to healthcare will keep this statistic moving in the direction of more people putting off the problems we normally associate with geriatric disorders and living well into our 90s and even past 100. On the down side, they are also predicting there will be proportionally more people with dementia (several million by their estimates), as well as considerable health problems associated with later life relating to AIDS and other modern viral anomalies.

The point of the story was that the aging population is becoming a major variable in how we constitute ourselves as a society and as human beings. Much has been written about the growing concern of the economic impact of this population as fewer people will sustain and pay for the pension and social security benefits of the aged. Even if many of us continue to work, the numbers are alarming. Add to this the continuing ‘ageist’ trend among corporations to ‘retire’ workers at younger and younger ages and resistance to hiring older workers and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for anyone in the system.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the numbers of age discrimination complaints with human rights commissions in many countries is increasing almost exponentially. One report stated that age-related complaints have now surpassed many other forms of discrimination complaints. While the demographics of the “Baby Boom” are well known, the fact is that whatever we imagined it would be like to have half of our population ‘older’ is now becoming a reality—and no one knows what it will all mean or look like in coming years.

Of course, there are early adapters and opportunists who are looking to cash in on the demographic ‘swing’ from younger to older—notably in the financial management, travel, and leisure and ‘retirement’ industries. The change is also starting to show up in entertainment and advertising as more and more celebrity images are ‘turning gray’. Surprisingly, while there are unprecedented numbers of people looking to volunteer, the NGO and community services agencies aren’t very equipped to use volunteers well. There are always jobs to lick envelopes, answer the phone and raise money—but very few really challenging projects looking for volunteer leadership.

Ironically, at the same time we are ‘retiring’ the Boomers, consulting firms like McKinsey tout reports that predict a growing crisis in finding qualified workers to fill senior roles in management. We desperately need new stereotypes of who older workers are and a cultural appreciation that ‘older’ doesn’t equate with deadwood, resistance to change, inflexibility, unhealthiness or opinionated. They may be less intimated by managerial peacocks and have less tolerance for bureaucratic bullshit, but on balance can be tremendous assets to any progressive, results-oriented enterprise.

If the UK report is generally true in other industrial societies, we will have a lot of people between 60 and 90 who are still very capable of productive participation in the affairs of the community and in commerce. If and how they participate will (of course) be their choice, but it is hard to imagine 90 million people finding profound satisfaction and fulfillment in spending the last 30 years of their lives on a golf course.

From my perspective, what most of us want is to be wanted—to be in demand and valued for whatever we contribute. The mantra of the Boomer Generation might well be heard not as “Use us”, but as “Use us well”. It is challenging to rewire our stereotypical listening for older persons, just as it is challenging for older persons to rewire their stereotypes of younger persons. The ageing phenomenon is an unprecedented opportunity to learn more of who we are, as well as a chance to see that historical divides based on age are not ‘facts of life’—they are simply culturally ingrained habits. We can change our stereotypes any time we are willing to accept them as nothing more than old ‘pictures’ and solely our point of view.

What would the rest of this century look like if ‘who we are’ is more important than ‘how old we are’?

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