If you were born in 1960, you had a 13 percent chance of living to be 100. Fast forward to today, and that number has expanded to 50 percent—and will continue to climb. In the last century and a half, we’ve doubled our lifespans. As I’ve outlined in this series of articles, the trend of living longer, healthier lives will only accelerate thanks to advances in technology and medicine.
This is fantastic news, but it sometimes meets skepticism. There is already hand wringing about how we can support the current aging population, as the number of people age 60 and up is projected to double by 2050 and triple by 2100. But because people are going to be living longer and healthier lives, the economics of aging are in fact being transformed. The opportunity should trump fear.
Cities and workplaces are adapting. Having a substantial population of seniors creates many tangible benefits. Many individuals are excited about the prospect of staving off disease and having more time to enjoy their time on Earth on a personal level, but there are societal and economic perks at play as well.
Cities and workplaces are adapting
Over a decade ago, Portland, OR became the first metro area in the United States to join the World Health Organization’s (WHO) network of “Global Age-Friendly Cities.” The network’s aim is to better meet the needs of older residents—through everything from housing and transportation to volunteering and social participation—so they’re not required to live in retirement communities. WHO also has a database of age-friendly practices—from a physical activity initiative in Canada to digital education in Sweden—that represent the seeds of the future.
Of course, technology and medicine are going to help older people feel and act younger, thus maintaining their autonomy and contributions. Still, it’s promising that cities have already been adapting to support the changes that could accompany a demographic shift. Those adaptations extend to the workplace, too.
By 2022, it’s estimated that around 32% of people between the ages of 65 and 74 will continue to work—as opposed to 20% in 2002. Companies have already taken note of this demographic shift. In 2007, German automaker BMW realized the average age of its workforce would jump from 39 to 47 in the decade ahead. In response, the company created a production line that integrates an older workforce. The initiative, called the “2017 project” was featured in the Harvard Business Review and let to a productivity increase of 7% in its first year, thanks to 70 small changes in everything from healthcare management to the workplace environment.
With companies and the public sector preparing for an aging population, the downsides of an aging population can be mitigated. And once again, these efforts don’t even take into account the fact that more dramatic advances in technology are going to change what it means to age, with less disease and a higher quality of life even for those approaching 100.
Society benefits from aging
The BMW example also illustrates a broader trend: as populations age, societies are incentivized to adopt new technologies, writ large. Studies from MIT and Boston University show a relationship between aging and the adoption of robots, thus offsetting concerns about slower economic growth stemming from an aging society. In addition, research reminds us that older people contribute tremendously to the economy.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: there isn’t a negative relationship between an older population and GDP growth, according to economists. And according to Fast Company, the “longevity economy” is thriving. In the U.S., 106 million people aged 50 and older are responsible for $7.6 trillion in economic activity each year. In Atlanta, a commission found that adding 1,000 new residents over 65 would bump its GDP by $7.8 billion—making an older population far from a liability.
Leading corporations have already launched health and longevity programs, too, improving the quality and lifespans of their employees. This hasn’t necessarily happened in response to an aging population, but it offers even more support for those people, while also helping younger employees lay the foundation needed to live longer, healthier lives as well.
Microsoft, for example, offers education and resources for smoking cessation, weight management, and fitness training, in addition to subsidizing gym memberships. Meanwhile, the tech giant also offers “Know Your Numbers” health screenings for heart disease, diabetes, and more—the leading longevity killers. Other tech giants including Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter all offer health perks as well, helping to imbue longevity-focused habits into far more people’s lifestyles.
The bottom line
Added all up, and there are many indicators that we are shifting, at a societal level, to better prioritize health and well-being, and to support an aging population at work and elsewhere. Having such programs in place means that supporting a growing older population will be far less costly than many people expect—one of the key concerns I hear raised about the aging population. The economics of aging are being transformed, meaning we’re more prepared than ever for a longevity revolution.