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Getting Smarter About Getting Older
Jamais Cascio, 6 Jul 05

The implications of an aging global population is something that we cover on a regular basis here. The basics of the story are well-known -- there are a lot of young people in the developing world, and most nations in the developed world are getting older at a rapid clip -- but these basics mask some subtleties. Although there are more young people than old in the developing world now, for example, that's transient; rates of population growth are slowing, and that youth bulge will, in time, become a big wave of older folks needing age-appropriate services. Similarly, it's arguably less important that the average age is increasing in the developed nations than that the lifespan is increasing; the relative ages of people in Western societies, as measured by the amount of time they have left, is actually dropping.

And these don't even come close to accounting for what could happen as medical technology extends healthy lifespans to a radical degree.

Much of the public discussion of aging and society centers around concerns that are less and less relevant: fears of hordes of baby boomers in retirement homes, supported by back-breaking taxation on the handful of remaining young people; worries that the populations of European nations are dwindling at a dangerous pace; warnings of a world where the developing nations are home to masses of armed, jobless youths. Focusing social and global planning around those scenarios will only result in having no clue how to handle what really happens.

That's why this story in the Financial Times is so heartening.

(Before I get into what it says, a caveat: the article is only available to subscribers, but the FT.com website offers a 15-day free trial, which can be canceled before a credit card is charged. I discovered, however, that the website link for cancelation takes one to a page listing phone numbers to call. In order to cancel the website subscription, you have to make a phone call. It's otherwise painless, but very annoying.)

The FT article looks at the ways in which the nation of Finland is changing the ways in which it treats its aging population. With a low birthrate and no history of immigration, Finland is said to be called the "Japan of Europe" -- home to a population that, at least measured traditionally, is getting old at a rapid clip. This is beginning to have a noticeable effect on the workplace. With employment as a focus, part of what Finland is doing is unsurprising: raising the retirement age; training management to better understand how to take advantage of the skills of older employees; and creating pension incentives for older workers who choose to stay on past retirement age.

But much of it is an attempt to change the culture to better fit physiological reality. Retirement ages of 60-65 were generally mandated at a time when average lifespan was in the low 60s. Today, lifespans are well into the 70s and 80s, and getting higher every year; the idea that one will work full-time up to a particular limit, then suddenly take a cut in income and activity to putter around for another decade or two makes little sense to people in their 60s who are as healthy (and can expect to live as many more years) as people in their 40s just a few decades ago. As lifespans continue to lengthen, such a model will make even less sense for retirees expecting to live another 30, 40, or 50 years.

Increasingly, employees hitting their early 60s have little need to stop working. Older people may have decreased physical abilities, but mental acuity can remain sharp well past "retirement" age, and social skills tend to continue to get better as one grows older. Moreover, those two categories -- creative thinking and social interaction -- are at the heart of the modern economy. The push in Finland is to broaden the recognition of the economic and cultural value of an aging population:

[Lock-making company] Abloy’s long-term relationships with customers depend on knowledge and expertise, which take time to pass from older to younger employees. The group considered moving production to China but decided to keep it at Joensuu because of its technological strength. “We strongly feel that investing in research and development is the only way to survive in today’s world, where more and more jobs are lost to Asia,” says Mr Pikkarainen. [...]

In the research and development department, Kaarlo Martikainen, a 60-year-old age master, is developing the mechanical part of a new electronic cylinder. After 34 years at Abloy, he feels his knowledge is different from that of newly recruited engineers. He says they outshine him on the English-language computer programmes. “But when it comes to creativity,” he adds, quietly, “that’s my strength.”

("Age master" is a program to recognize and support employees 60 and above.)

Increased recognition and retention of older employees is having some predictable problems, mostly around younger employees who can't rise in rank but end up having to cover for the extended time-off granted to the "age masters." But this, in turn, has led to the beginnings of a re-evaluation of work-life balance issues for younger workers, particularly those who are at the point in their lives where they want to start and raise families.

The programs examined in the FT article are in their early stages, and a real culture shift around the role of older workers is still gathering momentum. But in the Finnish experience, we can see some signs of what the future could hold: a system that recognizes that healthy, employable lifespans are increasing, and that conditions have to co-evolve with longevity; a transition from full-time work to retirement stretching over years, rather than an abrupt loss of employment; an emphasis on social relationships and long-term planning in the roles adopted by older citizens; and perhaps most importantly, a shift away to a workplace culture that better integrates work and non-work needs over one's entire career, and that looks at career trajectories over a much longer-term.

It's possible that the work-life culture that emerges will be one where retirement happens multiple times throughout one's life, giving time to raise a family, gain new education, or explore new skills. Such retirements would usually be temporary, and would include transition periods both out of and back into the workplace. This kind of life and career structure could function reasonably well whether lifespan was 100 or (eventually) 1,000 or more.

Longevity is already forces our societies to change. We should take advantage of the moment to think about what we'd like a long-lived world to look like.

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Comments

Off topic — this picture makes me think of 'Holy Fire', the book by Bruce Sterling. Any relation ?

Serge


Posted by: Serge de Gheldere on 6 Jul 05

It is, in fact, the image used on the cover of Holy Fire -- we've used it as an icon for these sorts of stories a few times before.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 6 Jul 05

And who will care for the childre? If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that parenting children on our own without the wisdom of our elders is a difficult experience. Once again the GDP is valued higher than what really matters - people.

"Children should be brought up by adults and how many adults under 50 do you know?" - God in "Conversations with God Book 2" by Neale Donald Walsch.


Posted by: Joanne on 7 Jul 05

The gradual de-participation of elderly folks has a symmetry with the gradual participation of teens in the workforce. In both cases, our challenge is to create opportunities for meaningful participation, to make best use of available brainpower, and to overcome inertia and systemic factors that favor all-or-none employment.

There's another natural link: older employees and citizens are natural mentors for those just getting started with work or life activities.


Posted by: Hassan on 7 Jul 05



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