By Vince Giuliano, Melody Winnig and Michael Giuliano
This blog entry is the second in a three-part series on the shifting narrative of aging. In Part 1 we started by laying out main issues confronting the world that are associated with increasingly aging populations. We did this by reviewing landmark UN and US government studies offering a global perspective on population aging. Here in Part 2 we list a number of the contrasting narratives related to aging which we believe to be in flux. And we mention some of the roles they play, even subliminally. In Part 3, we identify some of the large number of initiatives and activities that are reflecting and driving the changes in narratives. In all three blog entries we look at aging from individual and from social perspectives. We also surface some of the needs and requirements for the effective transformation of societies to ones in which people are living a lot longer.
As aging populations increase, the social narratives about aging are also shifting. Social narratives drive our institutional frameworks, our laws, our policies, our rules of behaving, and even how we think about ourselves. We are in the midst of a sea change in our social narratives related to aging. This is part of a profound transformation going on that is not necessarily conscious. That social transformation – an accommodation to increasingly aging societies – is happening on a global scale, although the challenges and opportunities it offers vary from nation to nation, as well as from individual to individual.
Underlying the evolution in narratives of aging are four facts which we have discussed previously in this blog:
- Biological evolution and social evolution go hand-in-hand; one drives the other and for humans they develop in parallel. See the earlier blog entries Observations on the evolution of evolution, Social evolution and biological evolution, Indefinite life extension – Dialog with Marios Kyriazis and Social ethics of longevity..
- People are living longer in most countries in the world today. In Neolithic times, human life expectancy was approximately 20 years. In the year 1900 it was 47 years. Now, it is over 80 years. The pace of longevity increase is much higher than is generally acknowledged. In the US, life expectancy from birth increases approximately 3 months for each year we live. See the blog entries Evolution and the prospect for much longer lifespans and We are already evolving to live longer.
- Science, as discussed in many articles in this blog, may offer the possibility of even much longer lives. Within the lifetime of people who are alive today, life expectancy of well over 100 years may become the rule rather than the exception.
- Finally, we believe that right now, use of well validated knowledge can allow most people to lead healthy, full and highly contributing lives through their 80s.
Societal evolution and social evolution mutually drive each other
This diagram illustrates the point:
Image source: V. Giuliano. Simplified diagram showing relationships between social evolution and biological evolution.
For example, knowledge derived from biological research can lead to public health initiatives which can lead to less disease, healthier longer-living people. These events are on the societal evolution side. This can lead to epigenetic evolution and greater personal capacities, these happening on the biological evolution side. Greater personal capacities can in turn lead to enhanced productivity and economic development and new disruptive electronic technologies, leading to greater societal consciousness and more research and public health initiatives, (back to the societal evolution side), etc.
About social narratives
Social narratives are stories defined in different and often confusing ways(ref). Here, we are referring to stories that are commonly circulated in a culture that are usually taken as rock-bound truths. They are taken as the bases for defining rules of human behavior, laws, institutional structures, moral guidance, and the making of individual decisions. Such a story may be internalized early in the life of an individual and continue lifelong to shape decisions that person may make – even though the explicit story may not be consciously present. Such stories commonly serve useful social and personal purposes. However, such stories may or may not coincide with objective facts, especially when a society is in transition. Many reflect assumptions about aging that were true 40-75 years ago but that do not match the facts today.
A common story, for example, is “Aging is inevitable,” which certainly seems to be historically true although it may conceivably turn out to be less true or not true in the future. A closely related story is “when you reach 65 you are ready to retire, your body and mind are declining in functionality, and you become susceptible to the diseases of old age. You better slow down and get out of the way of younger people.” This particular story was more or less valid 75 years ago. However, today it increasingly lacks a factual basis. Worse, when believed, stories like this can prevent older individuals from making decisions which would allow them to lead fuller lives. Such obsolete stories are apt to create more harm than good when used to justify social norms, institutional and personal decisions.
Some changing social narratives related to aging
As awareness of a growing aging population increases, so too will the emerging social narratives gradually shift. We relate some older and emerging narratives about aging as we see them in the tables which follow. We list them under categories of personal health, retirement and participation, competency and wellbeing, macro-economic consequences, and relevancy.
|As you grow older you are more likely to get an incurable disease of old age like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, a cancer, etc.||Yes, however, you can take strong and effective actions to avert such diseases, postponing their onset for a long time.|
|How long you live and your health and aging are mostly driven by the genes you are born with.||The contribution of lifestyle and dietary factors to health in aging is in most cases much more important than your given genes.|
|As you grow older you are less capable of handling stress and it becomes more and more important for you to minimize unnecessary stress.||Managing stress is important with aging but this is not the same as minimizing it. Insuring adequate levels of multiple stresses is vital for maintaining health and vitality.|
|As you age, memory and mental capacity will inevitably decline.||Aging is not necessarily accompanied by dementia or memory loss and for most people effective steps can be taken to avert them.|
|As you grow older you tire more easily and it is important to avoid movement to protect yourself against the pains of arthritis and joint and muscle diseases.||100% wrong! Daily exercise and movement are very important for muscles and joints, and for protection against arthritis, bone loss and fractures.|
|There’s no point in expensive medical procedures or dental investments if you are getting quite old as you might not last long enough to take advantage of them.||At any age, take care of your teeth and health as if you are going to live forever.|
|Aging is inevitable.||Perhaps so. However the rate at which you age may be much more under your control than you realize.|
Participation and retirement
|Worker stamina, strength, focus, and productivity decline severely starting around 65. Retirement is an appropriate action.||60 years ago when most jobs required physical labor this was true. While physical stamina, muscle mass and prowess may decline with advancing age, productivity in information-age jobs may be maintained or actually increased for a person in her 80s.|
|With advancing age, individuals slow down in responding to intellectual challenges||Physical reflexes, such as for driving do slow down. Mental resources may also slow down, but the base of experience that drives responses is larger. And the quality of responses and decisions may continue to improve with age.|
|Older people may lose competency to make good choices.||This is so at any age. Choices of older people may be better-informed. Quality of decisions may benefit from age-derived wisdom.|
|There are some things that are best left for younger people to do, such as stressful sports, active dating and sex, and engaging in entrepreneurial startups.||Guess what! Older people are doing these things too. And they are doing them big-time.|
|Retire from your job if you can so you can enjoy “the good life”||For reasons of both personal reward and money, you will be probably be happier and healthier if you continue working or significantly contributing as long as you can. The “good life” of doing nothing may mean earlier death.|
|When you get up into your 70s and beyond, it is probably too late to launch a new career.||If you have the clarity and stamina to start a new career at any age, do so.|
Public and self perception of competency and wellbeing
|Older people spend increasing amounts of time and energy responding to medical health challenges.||Possibly, but older people spend less time and energy on other time and energy-consuming matters of earlier years such as dating, raising a family, establishing an initial career|
|Older people are offered fewer and fewer life choices and face bleak prospects.||Older people, especially ones retired after successful careers, often have more available life choices than younger people.|
|Older people therefore tend to be unhappy.||Older people can lead very happy lives. People over 80 are the happiest demographic.|
|With advanced aging, people lose their peers, have no careers and have little to live for.||People can be lonely or unhappy at any age. Many older people have rich networks of children or grandchildren and/or new careers or passions that carry them forward.|
|Older people tend to focus on the past rather than be innovative.||Not necessarily so. Many great works of art and science have been created by older people.|
|Beauty lies in youth.||In US commercial media, youth culture reigns. But this is not so in many Asian and African traditional cultures.|
|Older people in the media are often portrayed as fumbling, confused, incompetent or dishonest. An older rich person is apt to be power-hungry, uncaring and unscrupulous.||These are media stereotypical narratives very common in TV, the movies and ads. Correlation with reality is probably low.|
|Increasing longevity is today a serious problem for most advancing societies, for they don’t know where the vast amounts of money required for continuing medical care and pensions and social security will come from.||As people engage in the work force longer, periods of accumulation get to be longer and periods of pension payout shorter. Further there is greater utilization of human capital and a a productivity bonus for society.|
|In the present US health care system, most costs are incurred in late-in-life interventions, often in very expensive and not effective last ditch efforts to combat deadly diseases and conditions.||Yes, However, effectiveness and efficiency of health care can be improved and expected lifespans can be lengthened by re-allocating societal resources to wellness and health-maintenance education and programs.|
|In the US, the Social Security and Medicare systems are approaching bankruptcy.||In fact they are not. The Federal government has borrowed immense sums from the Social Security Trust Fund which is otherwise in solid shape for decades to come.|
|Older workers who stay on their jobs are taking opportunities away from younger workers.||The employment situation need not be a win-lose competition for a fixed number of jobs|
|Most entrepreneurial businesses are started by kids in their 20s.||“The highest rate of entrepreneurial activity now belongs to the 55-64 age group. The 20-34 age bracket has the lowest rate.”|
|Businesses can pretty much neglect the markets defined by aging people because they spend much less than younger people forming families or with families.||Businesses are paying close attention to markets associated with seniors with disposable income. The number of affluent Boomers is rapidly growing and they are defining important high-growth market segments.|
|Seniors may sometimes create new businesses, but their cumulative impact on the economy is small.||Seniors are huge job creators. “The MetLife Foundation has done research showing that there are 34 million seniors who wish to start their own businesses in the US.” While the majority of senior entrepreneurs create small and micro-businesses, their 5-10 employee hires have a huge cumulative effect on job creation. As Gina Harman, President and CEO, Accion USA, says, “Of the 27.8 million businesses in the U.S., 91 percent have fewer than five employees. These businesses have been the largest net contributor of new jobs to the U.S. economy in the past 15 years and collectively employ 50 percent of all private sector employees.” In a country that needs jobs, that is a good thing.”|
|Younger and middle-age people have more important and immediate things to think about than aging.||Thinking about and doing something about aging starting earlier in life can facilitate longer and happier years later in life.|
|Aging is mainly a matter of concern for developed economies. Developing countries have much younger populations.||Yes, but only for the moment. Those young populations are all subject to aging. “Significantly, the most rapid increases in the 65-and-older population are occurring in developing countries, which will see a jump of 140 percent by 2030.” Moreover advanced aging is apt to be a much more serious problem for developing countries for they have not planned for or accommodated to aging as has been happening in Western Europe, Japan and to some extent the US.”|
|The biggest health problem in third world countries is dealing with infectious diseases.||Traditionally, so. But third world countries are becoming more and more like developed countries where healthcare is increasingly concerned with the chronic largely incurable diseases of old age – cancers, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, dementias, arthritis, etc. And this is in part due to adopting a Western unhealthy diet.|
|Before we become too concerned about population aging, we should focus on more crucial and immediate world problems like wars, economic survival, poverty and environmental preservation.||All of those things are profoundly affected by population aging. “Population aging strains social insurance and pension systems and challenges existing models of social support. It affects economic growth, trade, migration, disease patterns and prevalence, and fundamental assumptions about growing older.”|
On to Part 3: A very large number of organizations and initiatives, big and small are both promoting and responding to the shift in narratives of aging.
The transformations in narrative described above are happening already on a vast scale. They are being driven by a large diversity of organizations and initiatives. This is the focus of Part 3 of this blog series. Some of the initiatives are highly local ones such as sponsored by a senior center, a sports club or by a surprising number of other organizations. Some are on a national or international scale. Some address specific aspects of the transformation; others address the transformational situation head-on. . In Part 3 of this blog series on The evolving narrative of aging, we list a sample of organizations and initiatives that both reflect and promote the new narratives of aging.