Redefining Traditional Notions of Aging: Embracing Longevity Across Cultures
Arielle Burstein, Belinda Chng, Amos Garcia, Perry Wong
September 2016
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Across the globe, societies are seeing dramatic increases in the size of their aging populations. Life expectancy has risen to 80 years and above in much of the world. Fertility rates in many countries have fallen below the replacement rate of approximately 2.1 children per family. Improvements in healthcare and nutrition have compressed morbidity to a smaller share of a longer life.

Increasing longevity and extended health spans have given people the opportunity to remain productive in the workforce and active in their communities for more time. Longer and healthier lives are also changing how people define their aging experience, enlarging options beyond traditional notions of work and retirement and toward an experience defined by meaning and purpose.

While the longevity dividend has created opportunities that few could have imagined in generations past, urgent challenges must be addressed. Without significant shifts in policy, practice and culture, global aging will strain the solvency of governments, increasing public expenditures on health services and support and away from growth-focused investment spending. The looming costs of changing demography, driven by high life expectancies and low fertility rates, represent one of this century's greatest challenges. Globally, the number of people aged 60 and over is projected to leap from about 900 million today to more than 2 billion by 2050, according to the World Health Organization. The 80-plus cohort will almost quadruple and those 65 and over will outnumber children under the age of 14. At mid-century, the UN Population Division projects that 18.2 percent of Asia's population, or nearly 1 billion people, and 27.6 percent of Europe’s population, or nearly 195 million people, are projected to be aged 65 and over.

Many institutions have not fully recognized, nor do they capitalize on, the talents and knowledge of older adults, their accumulated work experience, and the roles they can play in workplaces, families and communities. This is due in large part to ageist attitudes that permeate many societies and institutions. Negative age biases, including hiring practices that favor the young, can lead to exclusion and isolation, damaging the mental and physical well-being of older adults and depressing the potential for future economic growth.

The vast implications of ageism warrant a society-wide reframing of traditional notions of aging to bridge the gap between current attitudes and behaviors and those needed to realize the upside of aging. This transformation will stimulate the development of age-friendly environments and institutions that harness the value of older adults and reduce the current state of pessimism that surrounds aging. Both the public and private sectors can drive this change. Readiness for aging will require investments in services to ensure healthy living and strong enabling environments to leverage the aging cohort's economic and social value.

This report highlights three case studies about how forward-looking institutions are responding. Though they represent different functions and cultures, all are intentional about embracing and enabling longevity as a positive resource. The studies demonstrate how national policy frameworks enable systemic shifts, how local governments utilize community resources and expertise to adapt to the needs of diverse neighborhoods, and how businesses mindful of future aging forces can retain the skills and knowledge of their changing workforces to extend productivity.

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