The Upside of Aging (Part 2): Harnessing the Benefits of Longevity

If ever there was a time for enlightened self-interest, it is now. The convergence of aging populations and longer life spans is a source of growth versus a drag on resources. More of the world needs to appreciate this.  Contributors to The Upside of Aging offer countless examples of how this shift, when effectively harnessed, can stimulate the economy, enhance business productivity and improve communities. Here’s a look at a few that stood out to me.

Stimulating the economy: The United Nations is projecting there will be one billion people worldwide over the age of 60 as soon as 2020. In light of that statistic, Michael Hodin, executive director, Global Coalition on Aging contends it’s just good business to implement strategies that meet the unique needs and preferences of the senior population. He points to a number of major corporations already doing just that:

  • Intel is working on innovations to monitor and communicate health data on a real-time basis.
  • Eli Lilly is developing new imaging techniques to take photographic images of brain plaque (just one of many organizations trying to tackle the issue of dementia).
  • Harley Davidson introduced a three-wheeled motorcycle, recognizing older riders may have trouble mounting and balancing the two-wheeled model (Sturgis, here I come).

Ken Dychtwald, president and CEO, Age Wave, discusses the dominance of the 50-plus population in the United States:

  • As a consumer, controlling 77 percent of household net worth and accounting for 48 percent of customer demand; and
  • As a source of strong and growing future demand.

This group, some 98 million strong, will be a catalyst for major marketplace changes. The “emerging avalanche of 50-plus consumers” will drive demand for new products and services that enable independent, healthy, active, productive lives – ranging from exercise technologies, nutrition and healthcare, to financial services, transportation and housing.

In their introduction to the book, Milken Institute’s Paul Irving and Anusuya Chatterjee share still another important example – the role of America’s aging population in new job formation. One in five new entrepreneurs is between the age of 55 and 64.

Enhancing business productivity: Many companies have also woken to the fact that age brings expertise, and that lost expertise equals lost productivity.

Several authors addressed this subject, including the example of BMW, which created a task force on productivity in the wake of an aging workforce. While BMW initially found younger workers more productive, it ultimately found that with some simple changes to things like lighting and workstations, older workers emerged as the plant’s most productive team.

Other examples of companies creating age friendly workplaces and embracing older workers include:

  • Baptist Health, which is cross-training nurses so they can change roles when their current jobs become too physically demanding.
  • Aerospace Corporation and Monsanto, which retain scientific talent by allowing older workers to consult or work part-time.
  • ARO, Inc., which has created more off-site work options. This has been particularly appealing to older employees, driving productivity up 15 percent and reducing turnover.

These approaches demonstrate a growing recognition by employers that using older workers is a great way to access and retain experience, and reduce costs to recruit and train.

Improving communities: As Susan Raymond, executive vice president, Changing Our World, Inc. states in her chapter, “With age, people are more likely to volunteer and more likely to contribute resources; a vibrant aging population can become the core engine of a thriving community.”

She cites a 2013 study; baby boomers and “matures” (age 68 or older), while just 40 percent of the population, are responsible for nearly 70 percent of all charitable giving dollars. Importantly, she also highlights the contribution of time and leadership, which adds significant value to local communities and is a meaningful source of fulfillment for seniors.

Still work to be done

For all the positive examples, the authors properly point out the obstacles that must still be overcome to fully harness the benefits of longevity:

  • Ageism continues to be a workplace issue, in the United States and around the world, often limiting opportunities to work as people age.
  • Workplaces are often designed for younger workers, artificially reducing the productivity that can be achieved by an older, more experienced workforce.
  • Cities must be re-designed to meet the unique needs of aging residents in areas such as housing options, transportation and access to health care.

And much work needs to be done to mitigate the effects and slow down the progression of dementia (and in an ideal world, to eradicate it). Because the real upside of longevity will come when those extra years are healthy, active and productive. More on another important aspect – funding longer retirements – in my next post.