We live in an era defined by transformation. The pandemic heaped challenges on ageing societies that were already dealing with climate change, accelerating technological evolution, widening inequality, rampant overuse of resources and more.
The ideas that underpin our societies are being challenged and thus require a broad rethink. This includes our approach to work, retirement, and the overall organisation of our lives. As the consequences of our actions unveil themselves, it’s becoming increasingly evident that we need a paradigm shift.
The ageing time bomb
Hong Kong is bracing for a significant
demographic challenge as its population
ages rapidly, creating an imminent
shortage of over 60,000 residences for
the elderly by 2032. According to a recent
report by JLL, the city is on track to
achieve the highest global share of people
aged 60 or above by 2050, comprising
over 40% of the total population.
Photo: Lee Aik Soon / Unsplash
Humanity is experiencing an unprecedented increase in life expectancy that is paired with decreasing birth rates. This has us headed towards a time when there will be more people aged 65 or older than children below the age of five. Together, these factors are changing the demographic nature of our societies. If we keep doing things the way we do now, fewer young people will have to provide for a larger cohort of older people.1
Populations are steadily urbanising. Nearly 50% of the global population lives in cities, and they emit roughly 75% of global carbon dioxide. As the population continues to grow, the overall portion of cities is expected to do the same. These trends will compound the carbon dioxide emissions arising from cities, and unless we make drastic changes in how we live, the total emissions will also continue to grow.2
We know what happens then. Urbanisation’s impacts go far beyond climate. Social isolation is a risk as social structures and community dynamics shift with the move to urban settings. The availability of healthcare and other important services tends to be better in cities, but costs may be prohibitive, and access may be limited. Infrastructure may better meet the needs of ageing populations, but that’s not a given.
Housing and mobility are additional areas where cities can offer benefits and challenges for elders. In sum, there is much we should be mindful of in terms of the ongoing and potential effects of urbanisation on our ageing populations.
Renewable energy is a technology that is often offered as a solution to our energy needs and climate concerns. While the capacity of wind, solar, hydropower, biofuels and other renewables more than doubled from 2001 to 2021, the portion of total energy use they accounted for was only still less than 14%.3 That portion is expected to continue to grow and the pace should accelerate, but we have a long way to go in meeting energy needs sustainably. We also need to be concerned with the resources that go into their production, as well as their handling at the end of life.
We are also dealing with technological change that is unparalleled in human history. Ideas which were long fanciful become real — and then banal — in short order. Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning systems abound. Large Language Models approximate writing, while image generation systems create pictures from simple text prompts. These tools are in their infancy, but it appears they are already being used in US political campaigns and they threaten to greatly amplify the ‘flood the zone’ campaign approach employed by Steve Bannon. 3
Technological change continually chews up existing jobs while creating new ones. Ideally, it creates more desirable ones in sufficient numbers to replace those it destroys. When that does not happen, dissatisfaction can grow. In the US, Donald Trump made the most gains over Mitt Romney’s electoral performance “in communities where robots were adopted more extensively.”4
Technological advances can greatly benefit our lives, but as the author William Gibson wrote, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” COVID vaccinations provide a stark example. Three years into the pandemic, people in upper-middle and high-income countries have had an average of over two doses per person, while low-income nations have delivered just four doses for every ten people. These are, of course, not evenly distributed throughout these groups or the nations they represent. Many people have had four or more doses, while 30% of humanity is still waiting for their first dose.5
Tech-enabled lifelong learning
Recent progress in neuroscience demonstrates that brain ageing may be reversible, and that continuous learning activity can increase neuronal regeneration and delay the onset of cognitive impairment in elders. From streaming services and video hosting platforms to asynchronous and live interactive classes online, there are abundant opportunities for lifelong learning online for elders, given that
they have digital access and skills.
Photo: RgStudio / iStock
For those with access, technological advances promise a seemingly endless array of benefits. Assistive technologies will help us ensure that we are not missing medications, and alert others if we need help. Advances in telemedicine offer the opportunity to ‘visit’ the doctor without having to leave the home. Communication platforms can remove language barriers, avoid isolation, and keep us in touch with our loved ones. Tech also promises ways to reduce our risk of dementia conditions by maintaining intellectual stimulation.6
The aforementioned demographic shifts will occur under the shadow of climate change, while also compounding it. As temperatures increase, sea levels will rise, causing a host of challenges for coastal populations while triggering migration. Rising temperatures will also bring more and stronger extreme weather events like floods, droughts and storms. Those, in turn, will facilitate the additional spread of disease and increase the cost of functioning and maintaining cities.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN effort to assess science related to climate change, tells us that in the 50+ years since they began their work, “the influence of human activity on the warming of the climate system has evolved from theory to established fact.” They further inform us that every component of the climate has been affected. The oceans and atmosphere have warmed. Snow and ice are diminished. The sea level rose, while the oceans acidified and their oxygen levels decreased. Extreme weather events have increased in frequency. All these trends are ongoing and the driving forces remain. While the climate question has been unequivocally answered, other questions remain around what changes will occur going forward, how fast they will happen, and to what extent. The answers to those questions still depend greatly on our choices and actions going forward.7
“I’m here for my grandchildren.”
Defying a London-wide ban on Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, hundred of grandparents gathered outside Buckingham Palace on 17 October 2019 to launch ‘XR Grandparents,’ a group that unites grandparents and elders with the aim to safeguard the planet for future generations and calls for action on climate change.
Photo: Stephen Chung / Alamy Stock Photo
Climate shifts present significant challenges for older adults. Ageing leaves them more frail and more likely to have chronic medical conditions that require access to medication and assistance with daily living. Climate-induced disasters can be particularly disruptive for them. Floods and famines can increase stress levels while fostering mental health challenges and emotional strain.
Those with limited mobility are at increased risk during and after extreme weather events. Heat is a concern, as ageing and some medications can impair the body’s ability to deal with it. Also, those with compromised immune systems are at greater risk of illness as the range of insects expands. The incidence of water-borne diseases is also expected to increase with increased rainfall and rising temperatures. Climate-related displacement can cause emotional instability, stress, anxiety, trauma and more. Food insecurity and malnutrition are also concerns. In a warming climate, elders might experience multiple related challenges and thus be forced to deal with their compounding effects.8
Coming back to our ageing societies and the implications going forward: what should we do to adapt to all this ongoing change? We need to start from a place of understanding the complexity of our circumstances. The systems we need to adapt are interconnected and cannot reasonably be changed in isolation. These are highly complex challenges that will have different effects in different places. Circumstances will also vary, so we need to be aware of that as well. Given those factors, and the ongoing changes, solutions that work in one place may not work in another, and what does work may not do so for long. More importantly, the changes we need are critical in nature, so we need to look at the big picture as we aim to shift outcomes in desired directions.
All of this change should make us want to take a step back and think about how we want to move forward. Ageing societies cannot magically support growing numbers of retirees. Nor can they address the broader shifts in needs and challenges. For that, I think we need to become far more flexible and adaptable than we currently are, as we shift from a growth orientation to one focused on delivering on people’s needs in environmentally sustainable ways.
There are many ways in which we might add flexibility to our society, while also helping to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. At the recent Beyond Growth conference hosted by the European Parliament, Professor Tim Jackson gave an impassioned speech in favour of using this moment to rethink our economies and centre them around care; the provision of necessities for health and welfare. As he puts it, “To deliver prosperity as health, we need an economy whose guiding principle is care.”9
Care is something that has long been given a backseat to economic concerns. As my colleague Gawain Kripke once told me, “Most societies, I think, don’t really recognise or support care very well, because most care is seen as basically a private domestic interaction within households.” He then added, “the whole field of economics has never really wrestled with the idea that this is work, real labour, that should somehow be included in economic analysis.” Instead, care has largely been externalised much like the responsibility for greenhouse gases. Shifting that from an individual or family level, to a collective one, would alleviate untold challenges while allowing us to optimise resource use at a time when that is dearly needed.10
It’s about more than money
20-first’s 2022 Global Longevity Management Scorecard ranks the 10 best age-ready countries based on the life expectancy, healthy care system and happiness index of a country, alongside the top 10 countries by GDP. It is found that only one top GDP country, France, appears in the list of top 10 age-ready countries. Other big GDP countries, such as China, India and the US, score poorly.
Photo: skynesher / iStock
We live in ageing societies where many people’s basic needs currently are not met. Given that, the idea of centring care seems an unalloyed good.
But those older members of our societies should not be viewed purely as recipients. Grandparents providing care for their grandkids while the parents work is just one of many examples to the contrary.
What if the amount and kinds of such care were better understood, and we somehow worked together to ensure that the needs were better met? What if, instead of retiring, the amount that we work steadily dropped off over time? And as we contributed more overall in a longer life, we could look forward to steadily earning more free time.
And what if we also shifted towards self-directed work? The later we were in our careers, the more we would be able to choose to spend our efforts doing things we personally found to be rewarding.
We might also find ways to better support wellbeing throughout our lives, mentally, physically and emotionally. Provisioning care where it is needed should help greatly with some of this, but we could also restructure our lives and communities for active lifestyles, while also supporting mental health. Doing so would help us better maintain overall well-being as we live longer lives. Providing opportunities for lifelong education would enable us to react to our rapidly changing societies.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) is an idea which might also help, as it offers a variety of benefits.
Guaranteeing people a meaningful monthly income can reduce inequality and risks from technological disruption, while also fostering flexibility. Instead of being locked into full-time jobs, people would be in a better position to react to society’s needs. Along with UBI, shorter work weeks would help us reduce resource use, while giving us more time to pursue our interests.
If we were able to collect better data on the provision of care, we might use that information to coordinate the fulfilment of needs across society.
Here is an opportunity for our rapidly advancing tech to truly benefit us all. We could build a system that understood all our needs — as defined in the Social Foundation of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics — and helped us optimise our efforts to deliver upon those needs, while also helping us achieve environmental sustainability. If our goal is truly to deliver on those basic needs for all of humanity, we are currently failing on every single one.
With that in mind, try to imagine a world where work is more varied and adaptable. Imagine a world where technology helps us be so efficient that most of our time is left available for whatever we wanted to do. Imagine a world in which humanity lives in concert with the planet. Imagine a world where every human being has every basic need met. I want to work towards a world in which we do those things, a world where we can contribute meaningfully throughout our lives, while also receiving the support we need. To me, that sounds like a world we should all be excited to create.
Chris Oestereich is a lecturer at Thammasat University’s School of Global Studies, a columnist for Free Inquiry magazine, and the publisher of the Wicked Problems Collaborative, an independent press focused on addressing humanity’s challenges. He partners with his wife Eileen to run Morph, an upcycling brand that transforms waste into practical items. Through their firm, Linear to Circular, Chris and Eileen assist organisations in navigating sustainability issues as they work to foster the circular economy. Chris also co-founded the Circular Design Lab, which teaches systemic design principles to help people create positive impact in their work and communities. Through his work, Chris aims to help people see the need for transformative change and the benefits of making it happen.
https://health2016.globalchange.gov/low/ClimateHealth2016_04_Extremes_small.pdf; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9334478/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6119235/; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6857396/