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Let People Choose How They Age

Longer lives call for changing outdated beliefs about people 50+

By Joan Ruff

(This essay is the 14th in the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging series, The Business of Aging, running on Next Avenue weekly. The essays are a companion piece to the center’s new report, Silver to Gold: The Business of Aging.)

Older Workers
Credit: Adobe Stock

My mother lived well into her 90s, beating her life expectancy by almost 40 years. Her generation followed an established life path — work at one job or career until retirement. Then, with your few remaining years, travel and spend time with the grandchildren.

When I think about my life and what’s in store for my daughter, my grandchildren and the nearly 38 million members of AARP (where I’m board chair), I see many different paths filled with adventures, challenges and great opportunities. I see all of us taking control over how we live at every age — mixing travel, retooling, career changes, volunteering and crossing off bucket list items along the way.

The Gift of Time

We have been given the gift of time. In 1900, average life expectancy was 47. Today it’s 78. Every day, more than 10,000 people in the United States turn 65. By 2050, more than 20 percent of the population will be over 65 and more than a million Americans will be over 100. My young grandchildren have a 60 percent chance of living past the 100-year mark.

AARP is “disrupting aging” by changing the conversation around what it means to age. We are challenging outdated beliefs and sparking new solutions so people can choose how they live and age.

Today, the total economic activity of Americans over age 50 totals $7.6 trillion. While these consumers represent 35 percent of today’s population, they control more than half of the country’s investable assets. If this were a separate economy, it would rank third in the world behind only the United States and China.

Tapping Into the Longevity Economy

Businesses have a golden opportunity to tap into this longevity economy through technology solutions ranging from new ways to communicate to new ways to manage finances, health and day-to-day living. Older Americans are not technophobic. Most adults over 50 are active users of digital devices and are comfortable with mobile commerce.

While increases in life expectancy are obviously a plus, a look behind the numbers reveals that while we are living longer, lifespans continue to expand faster than health spans. In the United States, for example, the gap between life expectancy and a healthy life expectancy is 5.7 years. The larger that gap, the more significant the economic implications, including increased healthcare costs and fewer productive years for an individual. We can decrease this gap through healthy living and access to better health care — especially preventive care — throughout our lives.

Developing Products and Services for Older Americans

My mother was fortunate to live in a small town where people watched out for each other. But not everyone lives in such a watchful community. And even if they do, there is only so much that good neighbors and vigilant public servants can do. Businesses can develop products and services to fill this void. Government must partner with stakeholders to craft policies and pass laws that enable older people to actively participate in this longevity gift.

Robotics and eHealth are examples where technology addresses these ever-increasing needs. Japan, for example, has been experimenting with robots as caregivers. Israel’s “Here We Live” program connects college students who need low-cost housing with isolated older adults who have a spare bedroom.


Financial resilience is critical to having control over how we age. We often focus on how to save for retirement when we also need to think about how to continue making money.

Working Longer: Good for Business and the Economy

Traditional retirement is not likely to exist in the near future. It will be replaced with phased retirement, part-time or reduced hours, internships and returnships and freelance gigs.

Continued participation in the workforce is good for business and the economy. It is also good news for employers who are having difficulty filling jobs. Fewer younger workers in the employment pipeline, lower birth rates and slowing immigration signal a continuing tight labor market.

Today, 25 percent of the workforce is age 50+ and experts predict that by 2024, 35 percent of the workforce will be over 50. In addition to needing the money, the over 50 crowd continues to work because they enjoy the job and working with others. Yet, many older people who want to work are having difficulty getting jobs.

The Power of Intergenerational Work Teams

It is time for employers to deliberately tap the potential of experienced workers and invest in older people who are close to, or past, traditional retirement age. Intergenerational work teams are better performers and generations learn naturally from each other. For example, I am as astute as any eight-year-old on video games and social media, having been taught by an expert — my grandson. He, on the other hand, learns strategy and patience as we play chess.

Each generation will design its own path through the longevity economy. There isn’t one cookie-cutter approach. But we all need to recognize that when aging is viewed as a win, we all win!


Joan Ruff is board chair, AARP. Read More
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