How to Harness Old Age for the Good of All

August 5, 2019

With each passing year, more and more people are celebrating their 65th birthday, most of them in good health and looking forward to a decade or two more of life. According to the U.S. Census, Americans age 65 and older number 52 million, making up 16 percent of the total population. By 2035, this age bracket will swell to 78 million, or 20 percent of the population, exceeding the portion of children under the age of 18.

In a keynote speech at the Chautauqua Institute, a nonprofit education center, Linda P. Fried, dean of the Columbia Mailman School, said this demographic trend, rather than presenting a threat or burden on society, represents an unprecedented opportunity to harness the human capital of older adults to address pressing societal challenges. (Watch a video of Dean Fried’s lecture on Facebook.)

Dramatic gains in life expectancy—nearly 30 years added since 1900—are no accident. As Fried explained, this progress is “the product of intentional human investment.” Investments in public health, medical care, education, and the social safety net, results in demographic dividends. More children survive into the adult workforce, and women choose to have fewer children—conditions that stimulate economic and human development. “Societies where people live longer are wealthier societies,” she said.

While pundits fret that older people are a burden on younger age groups, in fact, seniors—half of whom say their health is excellent or very good—contribute to society in many underappreciated ways. Volunteering and informal care by older people would otherwise cost $160 billion annually, the equivalent of what the U.S. spends on long-term care. In the aggregate, older adults also transfer more money to younger people than vice versa.

Yet, while other life stages have well-understood purposes—education, career, raising a family—the 30 added years of life are still largely uncharted territory. Many older adults feel rudderless—not surprisingly since society has largely ignored the chance to envision and invest in new roles and responsibilities for our longer lives. “The opportunity of the 21st Century,” said Fried, “is to design a new stage of life.”

In her talk, Fried set forth a vision for seniors as the “pay it forward generation.” As an example, she pointed to the Elders, a group of senior world leaders convened by Nelson Mandela in 2007 to tackle some of the biggest challenges to our collective future. In the years since, the group has paid close attention to the climate crisis, working with young people to find solutions. In a similar way, she said, society would benefit from the skills, connections, and wisdom of all older people. “This life stage has a specific need to leave the world better than we found it.”