News Outside of Iowa

Last week, a string of events - seemingly unconnected, but deeply intertwined - reveal just how profoundly population aging is shaping 21st century life. Brought by longer lives and lower birth rates, the aging of the population has clawed its way to the top of leadership agendas. Three examples - Aegon, the WHO, and Davos - reveal the growing urgency to not only understand but also act on population aging.
First, there's this jaw-dropping insight from Aegon Center on Longevity and Retirement's report: half of all employees surveyed expect to work past 65. Drawing on data from 15 countries - from the U.S. to the UK to India, Japan, and Australia - the report adds definitive evidence to what has long been emerging: with longer, healthier lives, people are neither able to nor do they want to call it quits at 65. Three and four decades of retirement? That's a lot of shuffle board and a lot more expense.

As individuals shun 20th century retirement norms, policy makers would be wise to keep up. This development is to be celebrated. Longer, more productive working lives are the key to 21st century fiscal sustainability. And, leading to better health, which is correlated with activity, including work.
The second event last week that demonstrates that population aging pulls attention away from individual life-plans and towards global health. In a seminal decision, the World Health Organization's Executive Board adopted a new health strategy based on "Health and Aging." At the core of Health and Aging is the concept of functional ability, which seeks to sustain the health of our skin, bones, vision and hearing.

In endorsing this strategy, the WHO Executive Board affirms that the job of health policy is not just treating and curing disease, but enabling healthier and more active aging into our 70s, 80s and beyond. Further, this strategy draws global attention exactly where it needs to be: healthy aging is the foundation for productive aging, which underlays economic growth. The longer, more fruitful working lives that people globally are imagining, as demonstrated by the Aegon survey, demand that we age in better health.

Thirdly, there's The WEF Davos, the executive-cum-policy-wonk extravaganza that has been hogging the news for weeks. At Davos, one session called on businesses and governments to embrace the full extent of the 21st century life span; only then, it was argued, could economic growth be sustained in the decades ahead.

Lynda Gratton, Professor at the London Business School, called for business to "ditch retirement," and she reminded global leaders that "longevity is not just about the last 20 years of life. It's actually about the fundamental redesign of life from the very beginning." Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel laureate, addressed the unique value of older workers and suggested that corporations examine "the skill sets that older people really have that younger [employees] don't have, and maximize their use." Both Gratton and Blackburn are exactly right: there is immense opportunity is the aging of the workforce, and yesterday's assumptions will get us nowhere.

A new set of strategies will be required.

That gets us back to the Aegon survey. In addition to the stunning results it offers, the authors also provide concrete suggestions about how public and private policies can translate strategies into action. As one example, governments can launch public awareness campaigns to tout "the opportunities for continuing to work past the traditional retirement age, while also "identify[ing] and remov[ing] disincentives in workplace retirement plans to working past a fixed retirement age."

Even more important are the suggested corporate responses, which include conducting studies to "assess the value of retaining older workers," promoting aging-friendly work environments, establishing "intergenerational employee resource groups," and providing training for older workers. These policies would go a long way toward realizing age-friendly workplaces.

Such workplaces can also be built by following guidance set out in the Age-Friendly Business Principles articulated by the World Economic Forum. These principles lay out what goals employers should strive to achieve in the age of aging.

Taken together, these three events - the Aegon report, the WHO's new health strategy, and the Davos session on work and retirement - reveal an inescapable truth: in a world with more "old" than "young," and in a world where we must prepare to celebrate our 100th birthday, the status quo cannot hold.

Happily, this is no longer a secret. Across the globe, we're redefining how we live, work, and retire in the 21st century.