Academic journal article Generations

Welcome to the Future of Aging

Academic journal article Generations

Welcome to the Future of Aging

Article excerpt

The aging of baby boomers is well underway, but envisioning future scenarios allows us to better plan for multiple challenges.

In the fall of 2005, a spate of articles appeared in magazines and newspapers across the country under headlines that read something like: "First Boomers About to Turn 60!" This impending event, slated for January 1, 2006, was presented as startling news, but it shouldn't have been. Demographic factors are among the most predictable of trends: any living person who was 50 years old in 1996 would inevitably reach age 60 ten years later. Nor should there have been any news in the fact that a lot of Americans would begin turning age 60 in 2006. (When I looked for the first coverage about a spike in the post-World War II birthrate, I found a cover story of Newsweek called "The Boom in Babies: What It Means to America." The issue date was August 9, 1948.)

Besides hyping a non-event, the articles that appeared in late 2005 offered little substantive analysis of the implications of the arrival of the baby boomers at later life. Frustrated with the dearth of serious attention to a truly important story, I developed an idea for a research project. The result was a year-long study, "Baby Boomers: The Next 20 Years," that I conducted with colleagues at the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a nonprofit research group in Palo Alto, California.1 The "map" inserted into this issue of Generations was the first product of this project.

Now, as we approach the moment at which the first baby boomers reach age 65, it seems like a good time to give serious attention to the future of aging.

From Predictions to Scenarios

One of the first things I learned about futures thinking is that no one can make accurate predictions about the future, and that anyone who claims to do so is either deluded or a charlatan. But that does not mean it is impossible to think about the future in a disciplined and productive way. As Executive Director of IFTF Marina Gorbis explains in her contribution on page 12, the Institute was founded in 1968 by a group of established researchers who were interested in developing new methodologies for anticipating the future. Today, the Institute describes its mission as providing foresight about the future that leads to new insights that can guide effective action.

If we cannot predict the future with any degree of confidence, then how can we provide foresight? The answer, developed and refined over many years, is to generate a set of scenarios- plausible stories about possible futures that are distinctly different from the present, and that provoke useful thinking about a current course of action for an individual, for an organization, or even for a state or nation. The following excerpt from recent report by the National Intelligence Council (2008) explains that scenarios:

. . . do not attempt to predict the future based on linear extrapolations of the past. Scenarios do not seek to project the future. Instead, they focus on the identification of discontinuities and how these could potentially develop . . . over time. Scenario analysis allows us to anticipate future developments, and to evaluate strategies for responding to these events or conditions through an exploration of alternative futures.2

Some scenarios may be positive, even utopian; others may be distinctly dystopian. Much of futures thinking about population aging tends to fall into these two extremes: either a rosy future in which elders, aided by science, a robust economy, and sensible public policies are able to remain active, productive, and independent for much longer than previous generations; or a gloomy scenario that envisions a catastrophe in which a growing tide of demanding elders, compounded by a weak economy, growing health challenges, and ever-worsening ecological crises, puts an intolerable strain on our social institutions. (H. R. Moody, in his article on page 23, dramatizes these two extremes and considers the forces that may favor each of these alternatives. …

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