Asia is the birthplace of the ‘longevity noodles’ (yi mien, or mie panjang umur in Indonesian, pancit in Tagalog), which have their origins rooted in Chinese culture, and are traditionally associated with birthdays — particularly milestones such as one’s 60th or 70th. This symbolism reflects a wish for a long and prosperous life across countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and many more.
This practice is becoming increasingly significant from a social demographic standpoint.
Asia is home to the largest ageing population in the world, with significant demographic shifts across all nations. The region is experiencing a rapid increase in the proportion of elderly individuals due to various factors, including declining birth rates and advancements in healthcare, leading to increased life expectancies. According to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Asia has the highest number of older persons, defined as individuals aged 60 and above. By 2050, it is estimated that Asia will account for more than half of the global population aged 60 and older.1
Countries such as Japan, China, South Korea and Singapore are at the forefront of this trend.
Youthful countries such as Indonesia will not be able to buck it. In addition, 80% of all older people will live in low- and middle-income countries.2
Professor Laura Carstensen, the founding director of the Stanford Centre on Longevity, tells us, “We need to change the way we live in fairly radical ways”. The Ashoka partner adds, “We need to reenvision the life course, what it can look like today, and what the big challenges are that we need to address”.3 To help address this, the centre has created the New Map of Life initiative4, which plots new points on life’s course through nine domains central to longevity: early childhood, education, work, financial security, built environment, climate, health and technology, lifestyle and fitness, and intergenerational relationships.
Never too late, never too old
Malaysia’s oldest election candidate, the late Maimun Yusuf, gained international headlines when she contested the 2008 and 2013 general
elections as an independent candidate for the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary seat at ages of 89 and 94 respectively. When asked in 2013
by Malaysiakini news site why she wanted to contest, the grandmother said, “It is a sin to remain silent when you witness people committing
wrongdoings. Merely shouting about it by the roadside would lead to nothing.”
Photo: Bazuki Muhammad / REUTERS
We need to imagine a new life course in which all parts of society can participate and contribute fully for the good of all. In looking for ways to do so, Ashoka monitors social innovation across the world.
We look for patterns in the opportunities identified by Ashoka Fellows — our global network of social entrepreneurs. At the heart of Ashoka’s philosophy is the desire to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to the community for our common good. Social entrepreneurs often show us patterns and pathways for the future we want to see — they are the ‘R&D’ labs for largescale solutions and movements.
A global study that reviewed the work of 100 social entrepreneurs who are reshaping the concept of ageing helped us reconsider our perspective. It made us realise that our life journey, which has long been seen as having three to four fixed stages (i.e., education, work, retirement), should now be viewed as a longevity continuum, with six to eight life stages across a 100-year life. In order to fully embrace this new paradigm, we believe society needs to undergo five critical shifts:
1. REFRAME AGEING AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO CONTRIBUTE TO SOCIETY AND INVITE EVERYONE, INCLUDING THE ELDERLY, TO ACTIVELY CONTRIBUTE.
This involves defeating stereotypes of ageism and adopting generative and purposeful qualities throughout all life stages.
Ashoka Fellow Ximena Abogabir shares her insight from Travesía1005 (‘Journey to 100’ in English), which works to change society’s view of those 60+ by promoting an active, happy and purposeful maturity:
“Then one day, I was 70 years old. Society didn’t have any more roles for me to play. I had to invent a new role, meaning and purpose. And what about everyone else?”
As more and more of her fellow Chileans embark on a ‘Journey to 100’, Ximena helps them plan the trip of a lifetime.
Bonding across generations
CoGenerate was co-founded by Marc
Freedman with the mission of promoting
intergenerational engagement at various
touchpoints to bridge divides and solve
shared problems. It supports initiatives such as the New York-based Grandpas United, an intergenerational youth mentoring programme that also challenges ageist narratives.
2. PROVIDE INCENTIVES TO PROMOTE INTERGENERATIONAL LEARNING AND COLLABORATION
Ashoka Fellow Marc Freedman is an author and the founder of Encore.org and CoGenerate, and initiatives such as Experience Core and the Purpose Prize. He says that modern industrial society increasingly drives age segregation and divides society into silos.
Thus, social innovations that isolate elders in care homes away from younger generations hinder the progress of elders. Studies show that adults that build bonds with younger people are three times happier in their seventies6, while communities with better intergenerational ties experience a variety of benefits7.
Caring for the caregivers
In Savar, Bangladesh, it was estimated that 67% of households, consisting of a carer and a person with a disability,
were living in extreme poverty without the support of mainstream poverty alleviation programmes. To address
this pressing issue, Carers Worldwide initiated a project in 2018–2020, employing a community empowerment
approach to tackle the social and economic challenges faced by the primary carergivers who are mostly women.
Source: Carers Worldwide
3. ALIGN HEALTH SPAN AND LIFESPAN AS PEOPLE TAKE MORE OWNERSHIP OF THEIR HEALTH AND WELL-BEING.
Lifespan is defined as the number of years a person lives, whereas health span is defined as the length of time a person is healthy — not just alive. What social determinants are most important to consider for healthy ageing in communities as lifespan expands across all socio-economic groups? Factors such as social isolation, social protection, financial sustainability and health-ageing all become increasingly important in this context.
The entire care continuum needs to be revisited, including the times when elders are sick where there is choice, agency and control over the matters that affect their health and well-being.
Ashoka Fellow Anil Patil works with Carers Worldwide and explores the support for caregivers in South Asia. Also, Ashoka Fellow DY Suharya founded Alzheimer’s Indonesia with the aim of improving the quality of life of people with dementia and family caregivers in Indonesia.
4. PROVIDE THE CHOICE AND OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN AND WORK THROUGHOUT ONE’S LIFE.
The longevity opportunity requires a re-imagination of work through the entire life span of 100 years. The current pattern of work assumes intense periods of work in the middle stage of life, with retirement often at 65 years old, but that is expected to change in many nations. One study projects that over half of the OECD’s member states will raise the retirement age by the time today’s young people end their careers, in a move to address the challenges posed by their shifting demographics.8 Ashoka Fellow Sergio Serápião, founder of the movement Lab60+ in Brazil shares his thoughts:
“Work is important for many reasons, beyond the financial. Adults socialise through work, we chat, make friends, engage others face-to-face, and fulfil a role. Retirement can cancel all that overnight, and for many it marks the beginning of decline, not caused by age but by isolation. It’s no wonder that at Labora, we use social connection and well-being as indicators of success in senior employment, right along with earned income. In our youth-centred culture, jobs are designed for people not older than 40. So, we need not just more jobs, but new jobs, professions of the future, where seniors’ own strengths and competencies serve real needs. This means working with all the actors, not just seniors, but employers, and specific industries that already see the strategic advantage to expanding service to senior customers.”
Is the gig economy the answer?
In ways other than traditional employment, gig work provides a vehicle for older workers to remain productively engaged, giving them the opportunities to supplement their income and the flexibility to work on their terms. However, an unfreezing of pension rules, benefits practices and staffing policies is needed to solve the longevity challenge.
Photo: Edgar Su / REUTERS
5. INTRODUCE NEW SYSTEMS, POLICIES, LAWS AND ECONOMIC INCENTIVES TO ENCOURAGE AGE DIVERSITY AND FAST-TRACK THE NEW LONGEVITY PARADIGM.
Society requires the collaboration of both private actors and governments to envision new financial, economic and regulatory landscapes, unlocking the potential of humanity. The initiatives of Ashoka Fellows, including the work of Didier Ketels, who trains social workers as legal intermediaries to aid disadvantaged groups in resolving legal disputes quickly and fairly, and Gautam Bharadwaj, who has established a system to assist financially excluded low-income individuals in India to accumulate micro-savings for their old age, serve as tangible examples of this possibility.
Ashoka is working with its partners on a New Longevity movement, to create the systems change and orchestration that is necessary. Together, we can create a world where “Everyone is a Changemaker”.
The next time we enjoy our longevity noodles at a celebration, we should take the chance to think about how we can help create a world that is indeed joyful, healthy and prosperous for all.
Soccer Grannies: South Africa’s Footballing Pensioners Find a New Lease Of Life
In 2003, a serendipitous encounter with a soccer ball in the park ignited a passion that would forever change the lives of a group of South African grandmothers.
“One day, we were enjoying the park when a soccer ball rolled over to us, one of the women kicked it back to them, then it happened again, and soon we were all learning soccer,” recalls one of the Soccer Grannies.
Led by the vision of Ashoka fellow, Beka Ntsanwisi, who is also a renowned community activist and cancer survivor, these spirited women aged 55 to 84 formed the Soccer Grannies. Defying stereotypes, they pursued their love for soccer, inspiring others with their skills, camaraderie, and determination on the field. Beyond the game, these inspiring grannies advocate for better conditions for elderly people in their townships, becoming agents of positive change.
Beka’s dream of hosting an international Grannies tournament finally became a reality in March 2023. With women from Africa, Europe, and the U.S., all aged over 50, participating in 20 teams, the first-ever Grannies International Football Tournament (GIFT) was joyously hosted in South Africa. The event stood as a testament to the unity and empowerment that Beka’s Soccer Grannies represent, successfully challenging and reshaping perceptions of elderly women in South Africa.
Ashoka is the 5th largest non-profit organisation globally with a focus
on identifying the most innovative citizen sector actors that will change the world. Bill Drayton founded Ashoka in 1980 based on the idea that the most powerful force for good in the world is a social entrepreneur: a person driven by an innovative idea that can provide a solution to an entrenched global problem.
Working towards a world where ‘Everyone is a Changemaker’ for the good of all, Ashoka has built a network of close to 4,000 social entrepreneurs known as Ashoka Fellows — with 3 Nobel Prize winners among them. At the heart of Ashoka’s philosophy is the desire to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to participate and contribute to the community for our common good.
Hae-young Lee is Founder and Global Co-Leader of the new longevity work at Ashoka Innovators for the Public.
Sumitra Pasupathy is the former Global Stewardship Lead for Ashoka Innovators for the Public.
Todd Pavel is from Longevity Venture and Fellowship at Ashoka.
- Note by the secretariat. (2022, April 20). Overview of levels and trends in population ageing, including emerging issues, and their impact on sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific. Retrieved from https://unescap.org/sites/default/d8files/eventdocuments/
- World Health Organization. (n.d.). Ageing and health. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ageingand-
- Stanford Center on Longevity. (n.d.). Laura Carstensen. Retrieved from https://longevity.stanford.edu/people-2/laura-carstensen/
- Stanford Center on Longevity. (n.d.). The new map of life report. Retrieved from https://longevity.stanford.edu/the-new-map-oflife-
- Abogabir, X. (n.d.). Quiénes somos [About Us]. Retrieved from https://travesia100.cl/quienes-somos/
- Morrow-Howell, N., Hinterlong, J., Rozario, P. A., & Tang, F. (2003). Experience Corps: Design an intergenerational program to boost social capital and promote the health of an ageing society.