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Putting Down the Burden: Rethinking the Benefits of Global Ageing

“The good news is that, if we act now in a creative and proactive manner, we will have the greatest chance of realizing the potential benefits of the ageing trend – such as utilizing the immense social capital of older people – while avoiding its perils.” 

Klaus Schwab

Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum1

The world is changing: by 2050, 2 billion people will be over 60 years of age.2

The ageing of the world’s populations – in developing and developed societies – will inevitably bring major challenges. Issues like age-related disease and how people access and pay for care will be hard to ignore. But it is important not to forget the good news that comes with increased longevity, and the positive transformations a change in demographics will bring.

The Global Agenda Council on Ageing Society rejects the death knell narrative – the tendency to view ageing through a negative lens. The Council seeks instead to restore meaning to the idea of “ageing well”. It has worked to stimulate the rising level of dialogue on issues surrounding ageing, both across the network of Global Agenda Councils and with external partners like the World Health Organization. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, endorses the Council’s work and has chosen ageing as the theme for World Health Day 2012. Chan says that older people need to be valued for the resource and experience they can bring to their families and communities.

“The societies that adapt to this changing demographic can reap a sizeable ‘longevity dividend’ and will have a competitive advantage over those that do not. But this will not come easily. We first need to change the way we think and the way we do business. We need to discard our stereotypes of what it is to be old. We need to consider the interaction of ageing with other global trends such as technological change, globalization and urbanization. We need to ‘reinvent’ ageing. Above all, we need to be innovative and not simply try to reinvent the past,” Chan said.3

The Council shares the view that it is time to rethink the ageing society: how people perceive getting older; how society empowers people to live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives; and how old ideas of what it means to age get in the way of fresh dialogue. The Council recognizes that ageing is not just about the elderly, but also consists of the societal and individual construction of advancing years (much like the dichotomy of sex and gender). This report details how the Council has worked to gather a roadmap of insights and recommendations that point towards a new reality: a world where elders are valued, and age-friendly policies and environments help maximize their social and economic benefit4 while protecting their rights and dignity.

Writing a New Narrative

The primary work of the Council to date, Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise?5 examines the interplay between population ageing and the different facets of the modern world. The idea for the publication was conceived during the Summit on the Global Agenda 2010 in Dubai. Members of the Council were invited to write some chapters with Members of the wider network of Global Agenda Councils. The book was intended for a broad audience: media, informed public, political leaders, public policy-makers and specialists seeking to round-out their knowledge.

Each chapter was assigned a point person who took responsibility and was accountable for meeting deadlines and other requirements. The Council agreed that issues on which Members and other specialists disagreed would be reflected in the text. In addition to cutting-edge content from global thought leaders, the book includes a statistical appendix with country-level indicators of population ageing. Compelling graphics that help advance key points are incorporated, including charts, diagrams and photographs.

Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise? consists of 22 essays that explore the issues, key concepts and potential solutions associated with ageing in a broad range of contexts. The chapters highlight the increasingly urgent need to adapt to population ageing and identify and exploit the opportunities it offers.

The book is divided into four themes: Setting the Scene; Investing in Ourselves; Pursuing Healthy Ageing; and Redesigning Our Environment . The World Economic Forum agreed to brand, publish and circulate the book both electronically and in hard copy, and is the right platform for this cross-sector look at one of the most salient issues of our time.6

Identifying the Challenges

Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise? addresses a broad spectrum of age-related issues and, in particular, stresses the prevention and screening of chronic disease and new models of healthcare seeking to lower costs for rising numbers of elderly people. It takes into account the different country contexts and pays special attention to the stage of development and cultural setting. Issues related to the nature and operation of key public and private institutions (e.g. health systems, extended families and mechanisms for promoting economic security among the elderly) are also scrutinized. For example, the ageing of society presents different challenges for developing and developed countries. In the former, for example, populations are ageing before they get rich. But, for all countries, addressing ageing is an essential component of successful development.

 Launching the Book at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012

Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise? was launched at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2012 by Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization, Geneva, who described it as “must read”. Since then, the book has received worldwide recognition and critical acclaim with over 5,000 downloads from websites such as Stanford, Harvard and Columbia Universities and the International Council on Active Ageing (ICAA), as well as distribution of over 5,000 printed copies.

On World Health Day 2012, Chan invited Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, to a roundtable discussion on the theme “Good Health Adds Life to Years”.7

Maximizing the Potential of Older People: Steps to Change

The essays in the book do not point to a magic bullet or uniform plan. Customized responses are needed to countries’ social, economic and political systems and histories. Even so, some general principles of change stand out because of their broad applicability and pragmatism:

  • Committing at the highest levels. History shows that complex issues need high-level champions. With HIV/AIDS, it took public pronouncements from French President Jacques Chirac in 1997 and US President George W. Bush in 2003 to mobilize enormous resources and energy to battle the disease, even though HIV had been identified as the cause of AIDS in 1981. In the case of ageing, a commitment to an age-friendly society must come from the top, given that policy responses include raising the retirement age, reforming health systems and encouraging businesses to rethink practices. In addition, councils of distinguished older people who enjoy a moral authority should embrace the cause and spread the word to broaden commitment.8
  • Acting early and swiftly. We should not wait for a crisis to act for several reasons. Many policy responses – such as new medical curricula that focus on prevention and chronic diseases rather than specialization – require a long lead time to design and implement. In addition, good options may evaporate as constituencies shift, making gradual responses more difficult. For example, it would be fairer to give workers a decade of lead time to plan their retirement rather than informing them as they prepare to retire in a year or two that they must work longer. Moreover, it will be harder to convince workers to support a higher retirement age as they themselves form a larger share of the affected population.
  • Embracing the new reality of ageing. Individually and collectively, we must change our behaviour, institutions and public policies to reflect the new meaning of ageing and, along with it, the altered needs and capacities of older people. This means raising the legal retirement age (although this change may focus primarily on those not predominantly engaged in manual labour); investing in older people so that they can continue to learn and contribute to society; rethinking business practices (such as work schedules) to facilitate the participation of older workers and ensure adequate social protections (such as pensions); and reforming health systems to better meet the needs of older people. It also means investing in health throughout the life course so that people are healthier when they get older.
  • Acting on all levels. Pragmatism dictates that we start on the path of social, economic and political change at all levels – local, national and global. Urban design is a local issue; the legal retirement age is a national issue; the concept of human rights for older people is an international issue; and migration is a bilateral and multilateral issue.
  • Better using existing resources. There is considerable scope to use resources more effectively. This entails everything from the design of age-friendly cities and assistive robots to health systems that place greater emphasis on disease prevention and early screening. It also entails holistic life-course policies such as enabling older people to acquire financial planning skills and update their workplace skills.
  • Sharing best practices. In demographic terms, population ageing is historically unprecedented; as such, we should conduct and learn from a multiplicity of experiments in developed and developing nations. These would include:
    •  The Dutch city of Eindhoven’s pioneering efforts to become a zero-emission community (with the world’s most interactive urban lighting system) and a healthy city in which citizens have the latest technologies at their disposal to maintain a high quality of life even when suffering from chronic diseases
    • Shanghai’s ambitious urban policy, which will see the creation of widespread and accessible community centres for older residents
    • Efforts by the Andalusian Province (Spain), the State of São Paulo (Brazil), and the State of South Australia to broaden city concerns to the state level, given that many aspects of urban living that affect the quality of life of older people go beyond municipal boundaries – such as housing policies, public transportation, access to health and social services, and recreational facilities
  • Developing new indicators. A set of indicators should be developed for assessing the financial, physical and social situation of older people and the age-friendliness of various environments. We should use the media to hold key stakeholders (individuals, governments, business and civil society) accountable for progress in this realm. In addition to the World Health Organization’s guidelines on age-friendly cities, this would include studies on the quality of life, health status, economic and physical security and vulnerability to crime. It would help policy-makers determine whether older people are falling through the cracks – such as not tapping available medical benefits – when simple measures (e.g. free bus passes, transportation to clinics or help in filling out forms) might solve the problem.
  •  Taking advantage of new technology. It is vital that that we tap new technology to improve the quality and accessibility of healthcare for older people. In developed countries, “smart homes” integrate a range of monitoring and supportive devices to help people age in place more effectively. For example, wireless sensors connected to small computers can detect functional decline. Social robots can assist in vital activities, such as reminding people about eating and taking medicine. And telemedicine enables a patient to connect with clinicians to better manage chronic diseases at home rather than in a hospital.

 The Way Forward

Ideas and actions revealed in this annual report – and more fully in Global Ageing: Peril or Promise?, will continue to underpin and inform the Council’s work. The Council has decided its focus for the coming year will be to see how some of these recommendations can be implemented in specific countries.

The success story of population ageing and longer lives is often accompanied, in the end, by tales of doom and gloom. As this report demonstrates, the Council has taken a more proactive stance. Although global ageing presents serious challenges, there are also enormous opportunities that must be seized. Today’s decision-makers must confront the changed landscape with new frameworks and innovations in technology, education and policy.

The goal of the Council’s work is to ensure we understand and tackle these challenges. In the process, we must make sure that generations reaching older age are allowed to experience and express their full potential.


The opinions expressed here are those of the individual Members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.