The number of centenarians in the US has already soared by 58% in the last seven years alone. The Census Bureau projects numbers will increase seven-fold over the next four decades, to 600,000 people past the age of 100.
That’s both good news and bad news. . .
Surging health care and pension costs. A shortage of caregivers. “Dementia towns.” Huge numbers of people with nothing to do.
It’s easy to paint a grim picture of America’s aging population. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Instead, society could embrace the 100-year life. For one country, it’s a national project.
Mighty Demographic Challenge
If ever a country was forced to face up to the consequences of an aging society, it’s Japan.
With 4.8 centenarians for every 10,000 people compared to 2.2 in the US, a quarter of the country over 65, and population plunging by nearly 400,000 a year due to Japan’s low birth rate, they are staring at a demographic tsunami.
Their wake-up call came in the form of a 2016 book called The-100 Year Life. Its publication and popularity jolted prime minister Shinzo Abe into action. He formed the Council for Designing 100-Year Life Society to consider dramatic reforms of the socioeconomic system and an economic growth strategy based on a productivity revolution, aimed at producing more goods and services with fewer people.
The strategy includes opening up former barriers to immigration to supply an army of caregivers for the elderly, and improvement in long-term caregiver pay. In the past, Japan has been extremely resistant to immigration, so this will be a revolution in itself, if implemented.
Also under consideration:
- Opportunities for everyone to receive a university education and scholarships to reduce its financial burden.
- A drastic expansion in recurrent education to allow a widening of mid-career employment, open up new career paths, and ultimately allow more older people to work. Practical vocational education will also be enhanced. In short, preparations are being made to help people transition through multiple careers in the course of a long lifetime.
Mr. Abe also aims to encourage more women to enter the workforce, and to reform the public pension system to encourage later retirement. He’s looking to scrap the seniority system where wages rise with years of service in private firms and staff have to quit at 60.
Japan’s private sector has already responded. Companies are re-employing recent retirees on short-term contracts. The financial services and construction industries are shifting their business models, and manufacturers are investing in robots to aid older workers.
The most popular TV property show in Japan shows how couples in their 70s can adapt their homes so their centenarian parents can live comfortably with them.
Japan is not the only country facing up to the challenge of an older population.
In the UK, a recent report was published called The 100-Year Life: role of housing, planning and design. Social care, aging, and design groups got together to create a blueprint for change.
They suggest greater financial flexibility so age limits on lending can be increased, speedy access to grants for home adaptations, expanded construction of age-friendly new homes and environments, and an integrated approach to health, housing and care systems so people can live independently as they grow older.
The local authority of Leeds, a city in the north of England, is enthusiastic about this initiative, and together with older people from the community they’re redesigning their environment to make Leeds an age-friendly city and the best city to grow old in.
In Germany, BMW’s “Today for Tomorrow” project has led to 70 changes to help the company’s older workforce.
These include easier-to-read computer screens, bringing in more daylight, allowing laborers to sit in adaptable chairs instead of standing, laying wooden floors, providing comfortable shoes, robots for the more menial tasks, and even employing physical trainers on the factory floor to show older workers how to stay limber. Many of these innovations have been extended to BMW’s other plants around the world.
A few baby steps are being taken in the U.S. Ford’s car plant in Wayne, Michigan has been testing exoskeleton vests. These are metal framework robotic suits fitted with motorized “muscles.”
The artificial muscles make heavy work a lot lighter. The aim is to improve compliance and reduce shoulder and other injuries. It’s an idea that could change the life of millions of construction workers and warehouse employees.
With every year it’s going to become more urgent to accommodate a society of oldsters. This whole field is only going to get hotter.