“Our Societies were designed, for the most part, when life expectancy was half what it is today”.
Linda Fried, Dean of the School of Public Health at Columbia University
She was co-author of the US Academy of Science “Roadmap for a Healthy Longevity”. In her presentation at the Longevity Forum she went on to pose an interesting question. Her argument went as follows.
Longevity has not happened by accident. We, as a Society, have created it and it is one of our greatest achievements. We added thirty years to global life expectancy during the twentieth century. We have created a new life stage. What do we want to do with it?
Older people have strengths and motivations that are not available to the young. They have wisdom but they also are more prosocial. They want to give back to Society. In 1950 the over 65’s were only 11% of the UK population. Today they are nearly double that at 19%. By 2050 there will be 18.74 m people of them. They will be over a quarter of the population. By the turn of the century the growth will have levelled out. In “steady state” they will be close to 33% of all the people living in the UK. They represent a huge pool of human capital. How will Society use that capital?
The Gift of Wisdom to Older People
As we age our brains become better and better at abstracting and categorizing. We are better at finding patterns. This may be due to underlying changes within the brain structure. Not all physical changes with age are bad. The branching of dendrites increases, and connections between distant brain areas strengthen. The ageing brain can better detect relationships between diverse sources of information. It is better able to understand the global implications of specific issues. It can capture the big picture in a way that a younger person cannot. This is the foundation of wisdom.
Our experiences allow us to build on that foundation. We are more practiced in generalizations because we have more to generalize. As a result, we see patterns when younger people do not see them. Based on all that prior experience we can predict, better, what happens next.
Older people accumulate more knowledge of the practical matters related to living. They can cope with complex and emotional situations. Young people cannot. Wisdom brings more emotional stability. We have seen far more emotional events. We can put a particular situation in to a broader emotional context.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin have created a series of “problem situations to be solved”. The older respondents consistently
“come up with solutions that show a better ability to take multiple points of view, integrate large stores of practical knowledge and understand the relative nature of right and wrong”.
We have focused in previous Newsletters on the socio-emotional regulation that comes with age. Older individuals will maximize their own pleasant experiences (Newsletter #033 “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”) . They avoid negative experiences. If they cannot avoid them , they are more able to negotiate them. Older People can outperform other age groups in mediating highly charged situations. With age comes that emotional balance and breadth of perspectives. This allows conflict resolutions. They are more even-handed and acceptable than a younger mediator.
Older people are also more prone to want to give back to Society. Their volunteering is not simply a question of the time they have. They also have more altruistic motivations. This is perhaps why having an older President is not such a bad idea.
The Big question.
How can Society best use this pool of wisdom? What will this do to Society? Certainly there are many myths that will need debunking. Older people are not needy, they have a lot to contribute. Society must create the right roles so they can add a lot of value. This will also be good for them. Having a sense of purpose is one of the greatest contributors to healthy ageing.
There is no need for the generations to be in competition. Society needs the older generation to contribute. If they don’t it is the younger generation that will suffer. We are going to need them in the workforce and all aspects of Society.
Intergenerational teams are more productive and more innovative. The science tells us so. The success of those teams is the best way to destroy the stereotypes that underpin ageism. Seeing older people add value is the best way to change a younger person’s stereotype of what it means to be old.
Older people are as committed to the future as the young. They care as much about global warming and other social issues. If we design a product or service for older adults it is a better design for all ages. It has a better ROI if we include them in the market.
Health Equals Wealth
Answering well the question posed by Linda Fried will increase healthy longevity. Our lives are extending, as are the number of years we are healthy. Inequality means that the less “well off”, in any sense, will not benefit as much. Their life will not extend as much. More important is that they will have proportionately longer periods of ill health at the ends of their lives. This will drive current health systems to the brink of collapse. We need healthy longevity. Society needs the decline at the end of our lives to be as short as possible. So do we! Lifespan has to equal “healthspan”.
The solution is a life time focus on health and prevention. A big part of that is the creation of purposeful roles for that pool of wisdom which will be one third of our Societies.