Mike Klowden

Published January 23, 2020.


From time to time, I’d like to use this space to share insights from senior members of the Milken Institute community. Here, Paul Irving, Chair of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, focuses on the advantages of viewing the rapid demographic change as an opportunity, not just a problem.

Michael Klowden, CEO

Why should this edition of the Review, which focuses on climate change, include a discussion of aging? Because, like climate change, this unprecedented demographic shift is relentlessly changing the world. And because our failure to plan would be a costly and socially disruptive error.

Across the globe, populations are rapidly aging due to increasing longevity and falling birth rates. In the U.S., about 10,000 people turn 65 each day. Globally, the numbers over 60 are projected to double to two billion by 2050. By that time, the 80-and-older cohort will have quadrupled, and those over 65 will outnumber children under age 14. What’s more, these predictions may prove too modest; with a revolution in bioscience on the horizon, even longer lives may be ahead.

Institutions designed to serve younger populations, from health care to pensions to education, will be challenged. Isolation and loneliness will burden many older adults, and the costs of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias will threaten both family and national budgets. Indeed, the fears of a “silver tsunami” — a future of rising stresses, runaway entitlement costs, intergenerational conflict and economic stagnation — could be realized.

Thankfully, an alternative future, one that adapts well to aging, holds the promise of strengthening societies, expanding economies and improving life for people of all ages. A vibrant longevity economy is already developing as markets recognize the demand for products and services to meet the needs of the massive aging demographic. Age-friendly housing, workplaces and transit systems are evolving. Retirement is being re-imagined as older adults reject age segregation and mass leisure to work, learn, launch businesses and contribute to their communities through civic and charitable engagement. Innovations in medicine and technology offer the prospect of healthier, more productive lives.

There’s increasing understanding that experience matters, as employers integrate age in their diversity initiatives. Universities are developing both curricula and housing to realize synergies from intergenerational learning. Health payers are focusing on disease prevention. Even youth-obsessed Hollywood is telling more stories that reflect the interests and aspirations of older adults.

To be sure, adaptation demands flexible thinking from both old and young, and it won’t be easy. But if done well by communities, business and government, the threat of the silver tsunami could actually mean a golden opportunity — a future of flourishing for all generations.

Paul Irving