Beyond "Retirement": Solutions for 21st-Century Aging

Article excerpt

It's official! No longer is it impossibly uncool to be over the hill. Fifty years after they formed, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys continue to pack stadiums. If the ever-exclusive, always-chic preserves of the entertainment industry are open to "seniors" who should be "retired," it's time to hold up the mirror: with life spans a full three decades longer than they were a century ago, how should we plan for our own aging process?

There are no simple answers. Our uniquely long life spans throw traditional norms into obsolescence, and solutions to "the aging problem" need to come from experts and stakeholders across industries-from health to technology to finance and more. This issue of Aging Today aims to provide several different and- at times- opposing points of view to help work toward solutions that can turn population aging from crisis to opportunity.

The 21st-century Solution

What has worked in the past will not work in the future. Our 20th-century notions of aging and retirement have very little relevance in the 21st century, and it is time to create new paths to healthy, active and productive aging. This need is imperative, because not only are we living longer, but also birth rates have been steadily falling for nearly a half-century. With longer lives and fewer children growing into working-age adults, public and private entitlement systems are especially stressed. Consequently, at both personal and national levels, it is time to reinvent aging.

On a personal and familial level, the retire-at-65 model will leave most of us bankrupt and bored. According to a 2012 AEGON report (www.aegon.com/en/ Home/Research/ AEGON -RetirementReadiness-survey/), nearly 75 percent of people surveyed expect to be worse off than those currently in retirement, and only 5 percent imagine a better retirement. The primary cause for this pessimism was financial, as respondents expect Social Security funds to dry up, and pensions to become unaffordable for employers.

It's not just a question of money, however. Dr. Mark Lachs, co-chief of Cornell's Weill Medical College Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology, has shown how social engagement and activity are critical components to a healthy aging process. According to Lachs, "People talk about growing their nest egg for retirement. One of the other things you should be growing is a large circle of people with whom you interact." Essentially, Lachs is arguing that healthy aging builds just as much from social activity as it does from physical activity. The retire-at-65 model too often isolates older adults from the world, leaving them without healthy social and cognitive stimulation.

Preserving National Fiscal Health

Additionally, a reinvention of aging is critical to national fiscal health. In the United States, a full 25 percent of the population will be older than 60 by 2030. If a quarter of the population quits working and begins depending upon private pensions and publicly funded social insurance programs, financial disaster is inevitable. And by 2050, another 16 million Americans will cross the 60-year-old threshold. In Europe, we are already seeing what happens when social welfare programs refuse to adapt to changing demographic realities. What is fueling the fiscal crises in Greece, Spain and much of the European Union is a mismatch between 20th-century social institutions and 21st-century demographics.

There are smart, concrete paths that can lead to a new kind of aging process, where older adults remain empowered, important members of social and economic life. To take a step back, though, and examine how we need to adapt society to better embrace the possibilities of an aging population, I offer a brief overview of four areas where we have the most work to do.

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