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An ageing society is an opportunity not a problem

This week saw Older People’s Day – 1 October 2012 – come and go, with most people still probably thinking it involved a celebration of retirement and care technologies. What’s actually needed is a spark in awareness of the positive ways in which the increasing numbers of skilled and knowledgeable older people will impact on all our lives – and how employers, businesses and governments can benefit.

The growing number of older people offers us an immense opportunity. Older people, after all, constitute an army within which there is knowledge, talent and ability. Many older people are already crucial to our businesses and services. In some cases, especially in the more developed economies of the EU, outdated attitudes and practices around work and retirement have tended to marginalise older people and turn them, often prematurely, from being contributors to being recipients.

At the new Age Research Centre within Coventry University we are exploring the answers to this question – poised to give sound advice as to how politicians and others can rise to the challenge. One of our objectives is to make the case, backed up by clear evidence, for a new appreciation of both the actual and potential contribution made by older people to our economic and social life.

But we recognise at the same time, the harsh reality that with older age comes both physical and cognitive decline. Regrettably, policy and practice frameworks, underpinned sometimes by ageist attitudes, may have served to hasten such decline because of their tendency to marginalise rather than facilitate the inclusion and engagement of older people. Such marginalisation we argue arises, in part, from attitudes that attribute a lesser value to older people who are not in paid work – regardless of their actual contributions. This especially affects older women. Small wonder that many older people are poorly motivated and have internalised negative views of themselves.

Even where there is marginalisation and some dependency it is essential to ensure that older people, as for adults of all ages, are afforded options and choices by which they can adopt and maintain lifestyles that are conducive to their better health and wellbeing. We must, therefore, endorse the World Health Organisation adage that affirms ‘while years have been added to life; now we must add life to years’.

This means that we call for more flexibility in approaches to age at all stages, by which we can begin to break away from the notion of progression along some kind of conveyor belt that would have us all pursue a clear path of education, work and then retirement. Greater flexibility means that, instead, we might enjoy different options across the life-course – to enable people to work full or part-time, to take time out (for caring responsibilities, etc.), for training and development or for career changes. All in all, this points to a scenario where there are more older people who are active (and visible) in the workplace – as employees or employers. And if we can move towards frameworks that facilitate this, then there is the potential to harness the knowledge, talent and ability that many older people possess. There would be, furthermore, the benefit of older people’s presence that will help to demolish some of the misconceptions and stereotypes. Older people, meanwhile, will increasingly look for ’employers of choice’ who offer age-friendly working conditions.

Following from this, we need to think about the way in which our towns and cities can be made ‘age-friendly’. The World Health Organisation started setting out guidelines for ‘age-friendly cities’ in 2005 and runs a related development programme. In practice this means we should be moving to higher standards of public transport; more pedestrianisation of public spaces; more affordable (and suitable) housing for older people who don’t want to be looked after, and housing which is in city centres – close to the action rather than in suburbs with limited facilities; and more community and home-based care, health, and ‘ablement’ services. Of course any age-friendly city should be one that is designed for the benefit of all its citizens. It is far cheaper and easier to design future proof city spaces than to have to implement make-shift amendments after the event.

The picture outlined here only hints at the sheer variety of changes in our thinking that are needed. Many of those changes will involve the development of new products, services and opportunities for jobs. They will provide a kind of new impetus that our flagging economy desperately needs. An ageing society is still typically regarded by many as a source of problems. But it is only a problem if workplaces, design and attitudes do not evolve in response to the inevitable social changes coming.

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