Aging and beneficial purpose: A roadmap
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”
Robert Frost’s metaphor was never more apt than it is today, as a global demographic revolution alters almost every aspect of social and economic life. The world is aging as never before, thanks to increasing lifespans and declining birthrates. Advances in medicine and technology promise to fuel the aging of societies by continuing to extend longevity.
This revolution, however, hides in plain sight, as outmoded views of aging continue to dominate the institutional and cultural landscapes. The overarching portrait of aging remains stuck in yesterday’s paradigm even as older people increasingly seek to live with purpose and productivity, to “give back” to their communities and to use their talents for insight, mentoring, and workplace innovation.
In May 2014, the Milken Institute, supported by the John Templeton Foundation, convened a group of prominent experts in Los Angeles. Their mission: to discuss what should be an urgent mandate—to change culture and elevate beneficial purpose by reinventing the way society views aging and constructs roles and relationships around that view. These thought leaders from academia, media, business, and the faith and nonprofit communities brought keen insights to the many challenges and opportunities involved.
Mindful that the vast economic and social potential of older people continues to be overlooked, the participants issued a call to action. They acknowledged the urgent importance of spreading and scaling a new public narrative about aging. They emphasized the opportunity to redefine this stage of life as a new time of work, productivity, and beneficial purpose.
The group focused on developing a new approach that rejects simple stereotypes of aging as a period of inevitable decline, dependency, and disengagement. Notwithstanding the physical and mental consequences of aging and their costs, a large majority of aging people want or need to work. Many are able to remain productive, and they seek to make meaningful contributions in this new phase of their lives. The Summit underscored how this older population—healthier, abler, and more motivated to remain engaged than generations past—can improve lives and enrich societies.
The backdrop for this conversation is the dramatic shift in global demography, a permanent condition resulting from fewer births and greater longevity, beginning with the maturation of the baby boom generation, the largest-ever group of older citizens. Timeworn notions of retirement no longer fit this population, which is staying in the workforce longer, and anticipating and seeking more meaningful “golden years.”
People are questioning the conventional view of what it means to be “old.” The vast majority of U.S. baby boomers intend to work past the age of 65. Many wish to pursue “encore” careers, volunteer projects, and civic activities. Millions of aging adults worldwide seek to remain active, contributing members of their communities and nations.
The key tools for this productivity lie in extended longevity and healthier aging, delivered largely by advances in bioscience and medicine, technology, and smarter lifestyles.
Yet the media and popular imagery continue to perpetuate stereotypes that ignore the vibrancy and potential of today’s older people. Discrimination persists in the workplace despite evidence that aging workers bring valuable skills and perspective to intergenerational teams. And despite the burgeoning of the aging cohort and the related potential of a massive longevity economy, everything from infrastructure to appliances has been designed around youth.
The new older age is an open landscape. Aging adults themselves are discarding old patterns that set retirement in a specific time frame and trigger a downward trajectory. Yet while many plan to stay in the workforce full- or part-time and take up a variety of other activities, they worry about what employment options will be open to them, how they will maintain financial security, and what outlets they will have for making their lives more valuable and satisfying. They are the new face of maturity, without a clear-cut niche in the modern world.
Importantly, the goal of harnessing the wisdom and experience of older people should not be seen as excluding younger people. To the contrary, rather than narrowly advancing the interests of the older cohort, Summit participants noted for the good of all.
The Summit underscored the need to change our vocabulary around aging, to tackle age discrimination, embrace older people’s talents and value, and foster new, purposeful roles for them. This agenda includes highlighting and scaling best-practice models, including those from volunteer organizations, companies, and communities that employ at least some age-friendly policies.
The Successful Aging Innovation Summit began to plot a road map that redefines assumptions and expectations about older people. The map leads to treasure—a culture shift that will open hearts and minds and ultimately transform policies and practices.