One thing I anticipate when attending a professional event such as the International Federation on Ageing (IFA) 14th conference some six weeks ago, is to take in presentations with an eye and ear open for a study in contrasts. This works either in the same presentation or between several sessions over three days, either different in subject or similar to each other. This conference certainly allowed for that – comparative views on aging and longevity across cultural horizons.
Contrasts or comparisons between attitudes and social norms, policy making and innovative solutions in response to the impact of demographics shifts and healthy aging over the next decade or so, are worth study. It is what we choose to study here and it becomes obvious that uniformity will be long in coming as countries, communities and individuals continue to debate their own answers and develop customized strategies for items like age-friendly environments, health care and incentives for people to work longer (or not, in some cases) in a complex global economy.
Sometimes contrasts are a swing between amusing and alarming, or down to earth (in the order of “obvious, why don’t we just do it?”) to dubious (“eventually we’ll solve everything with robotics”). By the next 2020 IFA conference, I will be curious to see to what degree we are still in a time of social experimentation with how to live with an aging population, and if we will really need to wait another decade to 2030 to find a new vocabulary, when early millennials start turning 50.
Who knows? By 2030, as we continue recoding a longevity society, some if not most of what we choose to study and adopt today, may seem strangely tired like the same old blast from the past. In contrast, will we have a more enlightened world of intergenerational design; age inclusive strategies for all our common needs in healthy aging, urban living or fluid, flexible work structures?
Adding life to years, can’t get no “oldspiration”!
In the meantime, here are two studies in contrast I plucked out of the IFA 2018 conference. One of these presented in a single symposium session, and one in little sound bites that might have flitted quickly, almost missed or unrecalled by some from a plenary panel conversation.
From the first panel on day one – Adding Life to Years and Measuring Change, Dr. Geoff Fernie, Senior Scientist, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute – in response to the moderator’s wide open door question “what is life?” – playfully threw the cat among the pigeons by saying “I think celebrating aging is crap”. Well as alarming and amusing as that was he went on to say, “what are we avoiding?” Illness and death perhaps.
Of course, Dr. Fernie was more serious when he followed up by sharing more of his practical approach to solving everyday problems, like common sense prevention technologies for falls. He asked us to think, “what can we do that’s different in health care?” and called for us not to lose sight of the basics in technology for every day useful items like the shoes we wear.
In contrast, on the same panel, Dr. Pol Vandenbroucke, Chief Development Officer at Pfizer, talked about the study of drugs and their impact on older people, how side effects change with aging. Then Vandenbroucke’s fun add-on, (with Fernie’s playful “celebrating aging is crap” comment still in my ear), was his mention of Pfizer’s contribution to the promotion of healthy aging and their website Get Old. Here you can take a fluffy little quiz, “how do you feel about getting old?” and are encouraged to get some “Oldspiration”.
Capturing your longevity dividend, improvising a 50-plus life
Moving right along. Later on day one of the conference, I sat in on a symposium – Capturing the Longevity Dividend in an Ageing World: Perspectives from Four Countries. Here the point of interest in the comparative study was between the stories of South Korea’s Seoul 50Plus Foundation and USA organization Encore. Setting aside the other two speakers from Nesta in the UK and Germany’s Körber Foundation, the striking cultural reference to the 50-Plus experience was that of retirement and working later in life.
Not that international norms or attitudes on this subject were new to me, but when you hear them presented live in as session such as this, you quickly want to move beyond the hyped phrase “Oldspiration”. I thought more about, (as was framed in one of the write-ups describing this session), encouraging older adult engagement that will pay long-term dividends for future generations. Will we see the life course as a continuum, as series of spiraling transitions? Not segmented third ages or benchmarked retirements.
So here we are 2018 in North America, we still tool around with 65 as being a retirement age from full time work, while we market a life for 50-Plus encores. Gear up early. In Seoul, South Korea where we learned the average retirement age from a “main job” is 52, the 50Plus Foundation efforts focus on what amounts to a full on social retraining on how to work and live differently in a second lifetime.
As their focus statement on their website states, they are “Designing the next stretch of 40-50 years in the 100-year life”. An alarming thought for a number of people I know, who are nowhere near that mindful at age 50. Further amusing to me, one of the statistics from Seoul 50Plus Foundation is – 10 months, length of time between retirement and subsequent re-employment. This sounds like others I know who crow about the fact they are retired followed by “I’m doing contract work 4 days a week.” If you are re-employed, are you really retired?
All this quirkiness and often argument in conversation about reframing aging is understood better when cast under the light of something presenter Ayleen Jung from Seoul 50Plus said in her remarks. Paraphrasing here, she commented on how in South Korea, men were at the centre of work in society with their focus as success on the job. When they retire at 52, they feel insecure, looking for purpose, living with societal stigmas from the past.
Well maybe in our study of contrasts that may be some of what we are still shedding in North America. Which takes me back to a favourite quote from Theodore Roszak’s 2001 book – Longevity Revolution:
“By fits and starts, we will soon find ourselves improvising a post-industrial economy, in which increasing numbers of people old and young will work…at occupations – perhaps vital occupations – that are nothing like employment as we have known it. They will have only the most tenuous connections with standard hiring, ordinary scheduling, or a conventional paycheck. Transferring over to so divergent a pattern of working life may take some painful adjustment…”
Sound familiar? How are you capturing the longevity dividend? Even that phrase has more than one contrasting meaning and that in itself is enough for a future symposium, maybe at IFA2020?