(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a
columnist for Reuters.)
By Mark Miller
CHICAGO May 29 Economists worry about something
called the economic dependency ratio - the number of people over
age 65 to 100 working-age people. The U.S. Census Bureau
projects that the ratio will jump sharply in the years ahead as
the population gets grayer - from 22 in 2010 to 35 in 2030.
The total dependency ratio, which also includes children,
won't rise nearly that quickly, but politicians and policymakers
often marshal the elderly dependence figures to conjure all
manner of economic doomsday forecasts - soaring budget deficits,
the collapse of Social Security and Medicare. You'd think we're
headed for block-to-block intergenerational warfare raging in
Those scenarios aren't likely to occur, but there are
reasons for concern. We do face a retirement security crisis
prompted by low saving rates and the decline of traditional
pensions. Healthcare costs could start to soar again. Demand for
long-term support and services may explode.
But what if we could change the math? Paul Irving argues
that we can - and must - view aging as a huge potential
opportunity in a fascinating new volume called "The Upside of
Aging: How Long Life is Changing the World of Health, Work,
Innovation, Policy and Purpose" (Wiley, April 2014).
Irving is president of the Milken Institute, the nonpartisan
think tank focused on public health, medical research,
economics and financial markets. The book is a compilation of
essays by Irving and other experts on the tie-ins between aging
and health, social entrepreneurship, labor markets, technology
Irving acknowledges the downside of an aging population here
in the U.S. and globally. "It's not that aging doesn't pose some
major challenges to overcome," he says. "So often the framing is
negative, but there are some very positive potential outcomes of
an aging society."
That starts by viewing rising longevity as a gift, not a
problem. Average life expectancy in 2030 will be 10 years
greater than it was in 1980, Irving notes. That is an
opportunity for people to have longer productive working lives,
and it should drive economic growth as new products and services
are launched to serve an older population.
Surveys show many older Americans intend to work longer.
Gallup reports that the average age when people say they retired
has risen from 57 to 61 in the past two decades. Forty-nine
percent of working baby boomers say they don't expect to retire
until they are 66 or older. Ten percent predict they will never
The "encore career" movement - marrying work with social
purpose - also has gained some traction, although it has
flourished primarily among white-collar professionals. Irving is
an example; in his late fifties he resigned as partner and chief
executive officer of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a prominent law
firm based in Los Angeles. "I was looking for a way to focus on
doing things for the common good," he says.
He spent a year in Harvard University's Advanced Leadership
Initiative, which trains leaders for new roles in the social
sector, and then joined the Milken Institute.
Irving says workers of all kinds need the chance he had.
"It's critically important to encourage and enable people at all
levels of the economic pyramid to continue to work. It might be
that someone does a physical job that becomes very difficult to
do in his fifties, so we should make it easy for that person to
be retrained and find new opportunities."
Changing attitudes won't be simple or quick. Ageism and age
discrimination in the workplace need to be addressed, and we
need new pathways in the world of higher education to encourage
lifelong learning and career retraining.
"We need to change our ideas about traditional retirement -
it should be retired," Irving says. "It's bad for your wealth,
and bad for your health."
Irving compares the challenge to the struggle to change
societal views on race or gender equality. "Changing the culture
is a complex process, and it often takes a long time," he says.
In his book, experts in psychology, gerontology, high-tech
innovation, labor, education, urban planning and more tackle the
He also worries that we're not moving fast enough. "Aging is
catching up with us at a very fast pace, but we don't have a
system yet that actively embraces the possibilities. We need to
move much more quickly."
For more from Mark Miller, see link.reuters.com/qyk97s
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here.
Editing by Douglas Royalty)