We stand poised at the edge of history. We are about to confront a demographic shift of enormous magnitude: increasing longevity, declining fertility, and the aging of the baby boom are triggering an enormous "age wave." This wave has the potential to create vibrant new stages of life with positive roles for the multiplying ranks of elders--and an equally compelling potential for social, financial and political catastrophe.
For many, life's prolonged second half will be a time to chart a new course. We'll have the time and resources to reverse past failures or build on past victories, perhaps changing careers, taking a sabbatical, or returning to school. With longer life spans, there will also be sufficient time to take a more active and contributing role in the lives of our children, grandchildren and community life.
For others, however, this "longevity bonus" will be fraught with pain and suffering. As bodies suffer and minds fail, tens of millions of us could wind up spending our final decades struggling with depressing loneliness and unrelenting pain. Large numbers of tomorrow's elders could also wind up impoverished, left stranded by an absence of financial preparedness and dwindling old age entitlements.
And who will pay for all of this? Can our country afford to have tens of millions of us living to 80? Or 100? Will existing pensions and entitlement programs survive long enough for us to reap even part of what we are hoping for? Can our current health care system handle the onslaught of chronic degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's? Can we wipe out this dreaded disease - and others - before they become the sinkhole into which 21st America falls? Can we envision - and bring to life a new "purpose" to maturity? And who of our leaders has the wisdom, courage and vision to chart the smart course?
In this keynote address, which was part of the general session of the recent joint convention of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on Aging, I found myself raging against America's unpreparedness for the aging of our society, challenging our misaligned health care system, sounding a wake-up call to our financially irresponsible population, questioning the new purpose of aging and lambasting our leaders for their shortsightedness in public policies pertaining to the age wave.
After having spent, 35 years studying (and worrying about) these issues, I offer these 16 minutes to you as a wake-up call, and with the deepest hope that in the years ahead, we can - and will - do the right thing.
Ken Dychtwald Ph.D., is a gerontologist, psychologist, documentary film-maker, public speaker and author of sixteen books, including Age Wave, Healthy Aging, Age Power: How the 21st Century Will be Ruled by the New Old, The Power Years: A User's Guide to the Rest of Your Life, Gideon's Dream: A Tale of New Beginnings and his latest A New Purpose: Redefining Money, Family, Work, Retirement and Success. He has served as a fellow of the World Economic Forum and is widely considered to be North America's most visionary and original thinker regarding the lifestyle, economic, health care, workforce and marketplace implications of the age wave.