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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation
 

Demographic Change

The Hidden Opportunities of Having an Aging Population

Prof. Dr. Ursula M. Staudinger

With its diminishing numbers of young people and its growing older population, our society’s age structure is often seen as a threat. Nevertheless, there is a silver lining. Prof. Ursula M. Staudinger explains.

What will an aging population mean for healthcare and pension systems?

Staudinger: Increased life expectancy means that, on average, today's 60-year-old will live for a another 25 years rather than 13 years, as was the case in 1900. Furthermore, people aged between 60 and 85 are today living healthier and more active lives. In the Joint Academy Initiative on Aging we have focused on the question of whether the aging of our population will in fact pose insoluble problems for our healthcare and pension systems. We found that this need not be the case, provided that changes are made in a lot of areas. This applies to individuals and companies in equal measure. The key factors here are flexibility in one's working life, a healthy lifestyle, and preventive healthcare. It also means that companies must continually invest in developing the skills of their employees. In other words, education and training have to focus much more strongly on lifelong learning. And people's working conditions must be adjusted accordingly.

Are these challenges similar all over the world?

Staudinger: Japan, the country that is most affected by an aging population, faces exactly the same challenges as all the other modern industrialized countries, for example in Europe and, to a slightly lesser degree, the U.S. China, because of its one-child policy, will find itself facing a similar situation by 2050. In India, Southeast Asia and Latin America, the question is rather how they will deal with the challenges posed by low life expectancy combined with high birth rates.

How are other countries dealing with these developments?

Staudinger: In very different ways. The Japanese are retiring at a younger age. However, that doesn't leave them with enough income to live on, so it's normal there to look for a follow-up career. In countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, and Sweden the proportion of people over 55 years of age who are still in the workforce is almost 80 %. In Germany that figure is only around 50 %. By contrast, the U.S. introduced an Age Discrimination in Employment Act as long ago as 1967. This means that no one can be refused a job because of his or her age.

Isn't there too big an emphasis on the negative consequences of demographic change?

Staudinger: The increase in lifespan is something that has not yet been fully exploited. On the individual level it means that lifelong learning can help us lead fulfilling and productive lives well into old age, and that in later years we have more time to realize our goals and dreams in both the professional and the private spheres. Our current tripartite career model—education and training in the early years, followed by working life and then retirement—has got to change. Even when their employees are at the apprentice or trainee stage, companies should already start thinking about the ideal length of time employees should spend in one position and how to bring about more frequent job changes. We need further training as well as more time for the family in middle age, and opportunities to work longer during old age. That's the challenge posed by demographic change, which is, however, also a major opportunity.

Up until what age can we still learn and work productively?

Staudinger: We can continue learning as long as we live, provided we don't start to suffer from dementia. And we can also work for as long as we want and are able and allowed to. We now know that training and sports reactivate the brain and increase mental capabilities. There are 70-year-olds with the mental powers of a 40-year-old and, regrettably, vice versa. What distinguishes older people is the accuracy, rather than the speed, with which they work. The older we get, the more we want to be able to learn and work according to our own rhythm. That's where Internet-based training can support individual forms of learning. Knowledge and experience can make up for losses in our basic biological brain capabilities. As we get older, it becomes increasingly important to know the aim and the use of learning something. That's because learning is a strenuous business, and adults tend to think carefully about where they want to invest their diminishing quantities of time and energy.

How would you describe the perfect workstation for an older employee?

Staudinger: There isn't one as such, because the older people get, the more different they become. I also think that it makes little sense for an individual to work in the same position for ten years. A wealth of experience can certainly give you the self-assurance required to make decisions, but too much routine can also lead to wrong decisions.

Are mixed-age teams the answer to all these problems?

Staudinger: Not as a matter of principle, no. On jobs with a fixed time cycle, there's no point in mixing people with different working speeds. It's a different situation in research and development. In that environment the experience of older team members is an ideal complement to the university-based knowledge of the younger ones. I think we're going to see a much greater diversity in team composition in the future, with diversification based not only on age, but also on gender, training, and background.

In what ways do labor markets need to change?

Staudinger: Greater diversity within the labor market would certainly be a good thing. For cultural reasons, the U.S. labor market is much more flexible than the German one, and there the chances of being able to re-enter work after taking some time out are better. In Switzerland there's much more part-time work, even at the executive level. The Swiss realize just how much motivation and dedication someone on a 30 % employment contract can bring to a job. For that person, this amount of work fits in perfectly with his or her life plan—unlike 200 percent employees who drag themselves through the working day completely worn out.


Ursula M. Staudinger, PhD, director of the Columbia Aging Center, and president of the ILC U.S.A., is a lifespan psychologist and an internationally recognized aging researcher. Prior to joining Columbia in 2013, Dr. Staudinger focused on understanding productive aging, with an emphasis on education and the labor market at the Jacobs Center on Lifelong Learning and Institutional Development at Jacobs University Bremen. Previously, she held a chair in lifespan psychology at the Technical University Dresden and had been a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Her research produced important findings on the plasticity of cognitive and personality aging as well as examining wisdom across the life span. Dr. Staudinger’s academic leadership is also reflected in her appointments as Vice President and Foreign Secretary of the German National Academy of Sciences and Chairwoman of the Board of the Federal Institute of Population Research.

Nikola Wohllaib
Picture credits: Jacobs Universität Bremen