Magazine article The Futurist

Aging and Public Institutions: From Campuses to Prisons, Our Institutions Will Need Extreme Makeovers to Serve the Public's Needs in an Aging Society

Magazine article The Futurist

Aging and Public Institutions: From Campuses to Prisons, Our Institutions Will Need Extreme Makeovers to Serve the Public's Needs in an Aging Society

Article excerpt

Forecasts about the future typically focus on trends in technology, while ignoring demographic factors such as aging populations. This could be a tragic mistake for institutions such as the military, universities, and even prisons.


While professional futurists are quite aware of evolving demographic patterns, the general public, too often, hears about aging only in the context of the Social Security debate. Few of us are fully aware of how demographic imperatives in the next few decades will reshape the organizations and institutions that serve public needs. A good number of organizations originally created for young people should anticipate an elderly clientele in the years to come. Some may need dramatic makeovers if they hope to survive.

Historically, the age distribution of populations in industrialized societies such as the United States has formed a pyramid, with a large number of children at the bottom and relatively few elders at the top. Now, the pyramid is turning into more of a rectangle, where age cohorts make up more equal proportions of total population.

Three basic population trends are driving this squaring off. First, over the course of the previous century, increased longevity has added approximately 20 years to the average person's life span, thereby increasing the number of senior citizens. Second, birthrates have declined, reducing the proportion of young people in the population. Finally, the aging of the postwar baby-boom generation will add a disproportionate number of elders to the population by the 2020s.

This graying of population in the United States, Europe, and Japan has been well documented. At present, popular awareness of the issue in the United States has focused on the impacts on Social Security and Medicare, which now face unanticipated expansion. Other cultural and social consequences of the aging population are less well understood, but in fact a number of surprising institutional changes are in store.

Education's Makeover

Education historians note that institutions of higher learning have always served as societal microcosms that reflect both the spirit and the technology of their time. In ancient civilizations, they served as repositories of wisdom, then as religious training centers during the Middle Ages. In more recent times, universities became finishing schools for aristocratic young men, and by the mid-twentieth century had achieved the status of mass vocational training facilities. Academe also assumed the burdens of scientific research, community service, and mass entertainment by way of sports.

As we enter the Information Age, more change is at hand. Two developments stand out. First, corporate influence is now transforming higher education from autonomous communities of scholars into competitive and largely self-supporting enterprises. Second, electronic learning technologies (i.e., distance learning) will reduce the number of young people on campus, challenging the traditional residential model of college life.

Educational managers are responding to these trends knowing that the survival of their institutions and splendid campus infrastructures are at stake. If fewer youngsters are headed for campus, salvation may lie in serving a growing cadre of older persons.

Many of today's older people not only are better educated than members of previous generations, but also have an intense desire to resume education as a meaningful leisure activity. This trend will be magnified as the baby boomers reach senior citizen status, so institutions are starting to take the next step--inviting retirees to make the campus their permanent home.

The prospect of a smaller traditional student population (i.e., below age 25) means that dormitories and other elements of campus infrastructure will be underused; meanwhile, elders might find this resortlike residential setting nearly ideal. …

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