29 April 2010

The Shock of the Old: Welcome to the Elderly Age

Reposted in full from the New Scientist, 8 April 2010

'Some worry that an older workforce will be less innovative and adaptable, but there is evidence that companies with a decent proportion of older workers are more productive than those addicted to youth. This is sometimes called the Horndal effect, after a Swedish steel mill where productivity rose by 15 per cent as the workforce got older. Age brings experience and wisdom.

Think what it could mean when the Edisons and Einsteins of the future, the doctors and technicians, the artists and engineers, have 20 or 30 more years to give us.

Of course, many older people do need healthcare, but many others are fit, competent and self-sustaining. Across Europe, typically only one retired person in 20 lives in a care home. In the UK, of 10 million over-65s, just 300,000 live in care homes (that's about 3 per cent). So the majority of Europe's elderly resemble Okushima in Japan. They are the councillors and counsellors, the social secretaries and neighbourhood wardens, the carers of other elderly people, and even the political and social campaigners and agitators - the glue that holds busy societies together. Far from impoverishing societies, says John MacInnes, a demographer at the University of Edinburgh, UK, all the evidence is that "mass longevity facilitates affluence".

The "silver market" is huge. You have only to watch US network television to see the constant advertising aimed at the elderly, from Viagra and holidays to equipment and leisure wear. Oldies have savings and cash from selling large houses they no longer need. The money is available for purchases and investment - and ultimately for their children.

But this is not fundamentally about economics or retirement. It is about society's zeitgeist, its social wellsprings. The cultural historian Theodore Roszak at California State University, East Bay, once took me to task over an article on the threat of ageing societies: "Ageing," he wrote, "is the best thing that has happened in the modern world, a cultural and ethical shift that looks a lot like sanity."

At 50, we do not expect to act or feel as we did at 20 - nor at 80 as we did at 50. The same is true of societies. What will it be like to live in societies that are much older than any we have known? We are going to find out, because the ageing of the human race is one of the surest predictions of this century. If the 20th century was the teenage century, the 21st will be the age of the old: it will be pioneered by the ageing baby boomers who a generation ago took the cult of youth to new heights. Without the soaring population and so many young overachievers, the tribal elders will return. More boring maybe, but wiser, surely.

The older we are, the less likely we are to be hooked on the latest gizmos and the more we should appreciate things that last. We may even reduce pressure on the world's resources by consuming less, and by conserving our environment more. We must especially hope for that, because unless the boomers can pay reparations for youthful indiscretions with the planet's limits then we may all be doomed.

The 20th century did great things. We should be proud that for the first time most children reach adulthood and most adults grow old. But after our exertions, perhaps we need to slow down a bit. Take a breather. Learn to be older, wiser and greener. Doesn't sound so bad, does it? Here's to Ushi Okushima.'

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