I’ve been attending the 2016 Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles, an annual event where 3,500 decision-makers from 50+ countries are focusing on the theme, The Future of Humankind. No biggie. So it was only natural that one panel featured four of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging batting around How Increasing Longevity Will Shape Our World. After all, 20 percent of Americans will be over 65 by 2030 and people 85+ represent the fastest-growing demographic in the country.
I found the panelists’ views about the bonus 30 years that many of us have been given (we’re living 30 years longer than Americans a century ago, on average) to be fascinating, thought-provoking and inspiring. And I wanted to relay them because I think you will, too.
All too often, while there’s awareness of demographic changes and the longevity shift, what it means is stuck in the 1950s.
— Marc Freedman, Encore.org
PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger moderated the popular session, opening it by describing increasing longevity as “a series of interesting issues and challenges and opportunities to think about.” (Next Avenue is produced by Twin Cities PBS — TPT — for the PBS system.) The panelists:
Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org — a nonprofit about doing work for the greater good later in life
Dr. Linda Fried, dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and senior vice president of Columbia University Medical Center
Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of Caring Across Generations, a national movement of families, caregivers, people with disabilities and aging Americans
Nora Super, the former executive director of the 2015 White House Conference on Aging who is now chief of programs and services at the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging
When Kerger opened with the provocative question, “Why aren’t issues about aging and longevity part of the national discussion?” Freedman responded by saying he thought they increasingly are.
“The tide is turning,” he noted. “The problem is: all too often, while there’s awareness of demographic changes and the longevity shift, what it means is stuck in the 1950s — we’re doing scenario planning in the rear-view mirror.” It’s still tied to marketers’ image of living “The Golden Years” in retirement communities.
Longevity and Outdated Notions of Giving Care
The care for older Americans is often outdated, too, noted Poo.
“The older model was institution-based and nobody wants that anymore,” she said. “The future is about home- and community-based solutions and new infrastructure with support for the 43 million people who are family caregivers on top of working full time, without financial support or community support or training.”
But Freedman was hopeful that aging boomers were taking the initiative and finding ways to improve the quality of their longer lives, by improv.
“So many people are not waiting for permission to live out this version of what’s possible. We’ve found that four and a half million people are doing [encore careers]; it’s not just Jimmy Carter and Bill Gates,” said Freedman. “They’re living out a vision that’s quite encouraging and could shift the headlines away from the ‘long gray wave of greedy geezers who will bring havoc.’”
Fried noted that one reason there’s no narrative for this stage yet is that “most normal humans, and Americans in particular, don’t want to think about getting old. There’s a deeply human aversion to it tied to the end of life and dying.”
The Fear of Aging
Poo agreed, saying that there is a “cultural norm around the fear of aging.” In addition, she said, “we tend to internalize the challenges as our personal failures — we didn’t save enough or we weren’t a good enough daughter or we didn’t have the foresight to plan; that’s it’s somehow our fault that were not prepared for the changing needs of families.”
Poo believes it will take a “major cultural shift” to get people to think differently about aging, and thinks the makers of TV, movies and the media have an important role to play. Poo’s a fan of Netflix’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Fonda sitcom Grace and Frankie and the episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None series called Old People.) Freedman gave props to the Robert de Niro/Anne Hathaway film, The Intern and its tagline “experience never gets old.”
The presidential candidates could help change Americans’ thinking, too, the panelists said. “All the ones left in the race are in their 60s and 70s, so the whole idea that your life is over when you turn 65…these people are living emblems that you could be president of the United States! It’s funny to think about it that way,” said Super.
Not Challenges, But Opportunities
Fried and the other panelists emphatically believe that the United States should be looking at increased longevity not as a national challenge but as a collection of huge opportunities for society and for older Americans themselves.
Those extra 30 years “could be rather fabulous,” said Fried. Science, she noted, “suggests the opportunities for longevity are breakout huge and there are opportunities for older people, if they age healthfully, to do some of the most meaningful things in their lives.”
Echoing that, Super said when she went around the country talking to people about aging for the White House Conference on Aging, “so many of them talked about how much they get from volunteering, lifelong learning and trying new careers.”
We can also borrow from innovative technological ideas in other nations to address increased longevity. Poo pointed to Japan’s Caregiving Timebank program. “There, someone might cook dinner for a neighbor, log the number of hours and then cash in those hours for the same services for their mother who lives on the other side of the country,” she said.
Harnessing the Assets of the Older Workforce
One gnawing problem, the panelists said, is in the workplace. Few U.S. employers are finding creative ways to keep and nurture their older workers. And they’d better do so soon.
Fried noted that 50 percent of the U.S. federal workforce is in the process of retiring. “That’s a huge loss of human capital and accrued knowledge at one time and we probably wouldn’t want to do that,” adding that “We need to harness the experience and assets of the older workforce we have.”
Instead, she said, “we are not having conversations to create opportunities for people who want to continue working and to develop new policies to support the medical care side so employers can afford the increased health costs that come with getting older to some degree.”
Freedman and Fried hope to see more older Americans using their longevity bonus to aid children who could use mentoring and assistance — that’s a top priority at Encore.org right now. Next Avenue recently published an article whose authors proposed a series of ways to help make it happen through an encore year of service.
“We need every older adult in the country to step up and serve,” said Fried. Added Freedman: “There’s evidence that the greatest source of happiness in older lives is investing in younger generations. Everybody’s talking about Malia Obama’s ‘gap year.’ What about a gap year for grownups to serve the next generation or to serve their own generation?”
As Fried said: “We’re all in this together.”