In the United States and much of the world, a massive demographic shift is accelerating. Populations are aging at an unprecedented rate due to advances in medicine, sanitation and safety. The aging revolution is altering every aspect of human life, and individuals and institutions across the globe are just beginning to understand the implications.
With rapidly changing demography, the time has arrived to change the public narrative about the roles and value of older adults. Millions seek new ways to contribute, ready to answer a call to action to benefit others, and themselves as well. We know that purposeful aging -- through service and engaged citizenship -- holds great promise for people of all ages.
But as the possibilities of purposeful aging becomes ever clearer, impediments to progress remain. To move forward, we must overcome negative age bias and stagnant policies and practices -- "disrupt aging," in the words of Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP.
"We are all faced with a series of great opportunities--brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems," said John Gardner, the leader, teacher and activist. And vast challenges across the world sometimes do seem insoluble.
Inequities in education and opportunity present urgent risks. Issues of race, gender, class and religion loom large. Our environment is fragile. Political and social institutions need repair. Unproductive policies and deficits in leadership and resources leave us struggling for answers.
The challenges of an aging population also are upon us. Dependency, disease and financial insecurity are increasing threats. Our responses lack imagination. We segregate older people from communities, civic institutions and workplaces. We dismiss their aspirations and underestimate their capacity for productivity and creativity. We stereotype, discounting their wisdom and experience. We encourage their disengagement and isolation during a lengthening period of life in which so much contribution is possible.
It's time, as the Apple ad urged, to "think different."
The Cavalry in Waiting
While it's true that the aging population faces significant risks, the trends are encouraging. Older adults today are healthier and more vibrant than generations past. They offer not just the wisdom of age, but the experience and skills that enrich families, as well as work, educational and social settings. As mentors and trainers, they bring perspectives that enhance intergenerational collaboration and understanding. In encore careers and volunteer activities, they contribute to society's well-being. As Betty Friedan recognized, "Aging is not 'lost youth' but a new stage of opportunity and strength."
Indeed, older adults increasingly reject traditional retirement, due to both financial need and, just as important, a desire for productivity and purpose. They stand ready to help if asked. And, considering the issues we face, their help is needed.
There's spreading appreciation of an opportunity that's hiding in plain sight. Can the massive and growing population of older adults provide solutions to society's greatest challenges? Leading experts believe they can. "We have to find a way to tap this resource," says Dr. Laura Carstensen of Stanford University. "I think of them as the cavalry coming over the hill."
By changing attitudes and enabling lifelong service, every individual could have the opportunity to contribute in their own way -- to "live a legacy," as Marc Freedman, CEO of Encore.org, suggests.
Programs in the United States such as AARP Experience Corps and the Corporation for National and Community Service Senior Corps are defining a new era of purposeful service and citizenship. New opportunities for service by older adults are emerging in an increasing number of countries with aging populations.
The benefits are many. And purposeful aging is not just about helping others. By helping others we help ourselves. Purpose enriches the lives of older adults. Research confirms that purposeful aging is correlated with longer life, better health and emotional resilience, a recipe for beneficial outcomes for individuals and societies across the world.
Purposeful aging is a compelling vision that is engaging a growing number of stakeholders. But culture change lags far behind the speeding demographic shift. Moving forward, the case for purposeful aging must be made more powerfully and effectively. Research results should be elevated and broadly shared. Pathways to beneficial service are needed. New ideas must be advanced.
Reminded of Muhammad Ali's adage, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth," it's time to spread the message that lives are meaningful at every age and stage -- that we count as long as we're contributing.
By calling on older adults to serve and spreading a new public narrative focused on purposeful aging, lives will be improved and attitudes shifted. The stakes are high and the time is now.
Paul H. Irving is Chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology