The evolving narrative and social transformation of aging – Part 2: Narratives of Aging

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:

  1. 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..
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Personal health

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.

About Vince Giuliano

Being a follower, connoisseur, and interpreter of longevity research is my latest career. I have been at this part-time for well over a decade, and in 2007 this became my mainline activity. In earlier reincarnations of my career. I was founding dean of a graduate school and a university professor at the State University of New York, a senior consultant working in a variety of fields at Arthur D. Little, Inc., Chief Scientist and C00 of Mirror Systems, a software company, and an international Internet consultant. I got off the ground with one of the earliest PhD's from Harvard in a field later to become known as computer science. Because there was no academic field of computer science at the time, to get through I had to qualify myself in hard sciences, so my studies focused heavily on quantum physics. In various ways I contributed to the Computer Revolution starting in the 1950s and the Internet Revolution starting in the late 1980s. I am now engaged in doing the same for The Longevity Revolution. I have published something like 200 books and papers as well as over 430 substantive.entries in this blog, and have enjoyed various periods of notoriety. If you do a Google search on Vincent E. Giuliano, most if not all of the entries on the first few pages that come up will be ones relating to me. I have a general writings site at and an extensive site of my art at Please note that I have recently changed my mailbox to
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