Making Aging Positive

Older workers typically offer a strong work ethic, are less likely to be absent than younger employees, and also reflect the fastest-growing consumer market. As a result, some employers like Marriott are actively taking steps to retain valued older workers and attract new mature recruits. Major companies, such as CVS drugstores and Fidelity Investments, embrace older “new hires” to meet the needs of older customers, many of whom are more comfortable discussing health needs or retirement plans with their age peers than are young people.

Age-diversity in the workforce is also a plus for an economy driven by innovation. Research has shown that while age-similar groups performed better on jobs that required primarily repetitive tasks, age-diverse teams performed much better when it came to problem-solving, idea generation, or productivity. A study conducted by Axel Börsch-Supan and Matthias Weiss of the Munich Center on the Economics of Aging, looking at age-diverse workers in a manufacturing plant concluded that older workers continue to increase their productivity until at least age 65 (the upper age limit of people in the study), and that their experience reduces the risk for serious errors. Further, age-diverse teams are more productive than age-segregated teams. We risk stifling our own innovation and productivity by segregating the generations and losing the talents of our most experienced members.

When we examine issues through a lens that recognizes the value of older adults, we can envision them in many new roles–both paid and volunteer–that could strengthen our society. They could train adolescents and young adults for trades and for successful transition to the work world, assume public health roles (such as health promotion, disease prevention, and emergency response) in our neighborhoods, and assist with environmental protection needs. There may be much-needed workplace roles never imagined in a prior age when there were not many well-educated older workers.


We have added 30 years to our lives, not just for the lucky few but for the majority of people in the developed world, and now the developing world. What does this new stage of life mean? Psychologists Erik and Joan Erikson viewed later life as a time when the impulse to give back to society (generativity) becomes an urgent need. Carl Jung, who was unique among early psychologists in his interest in the challenges of the second half of life, saw older age as a rich period of spiritual growth and individuation. Betty Friedan, who trained as a social psychologist, researched the issue of aging late in her life, and suggested that there is a “fountain of age,” a period of renewal, growth, and experimentation based on a new freedom.

The truth is, we don’t yet know what this new stage of life can be, but the first step is to change the lens through which we view aging and challenge our stereotypical assumptions.

Thanks to advances in gerontology, public health, and medical science, we now recognize that many problems ascribed to “normal aging” are not inevitable, and many can be prevented or improved. Drs. Jack Rowe and Robert Khan, with colleagues from MacArthur Foundation think tanks (of whom I am one) have made a compelling case that what we currently accept as “usual aging” need not be the norm. Instead, we can individually and collectively invest in behaviors, social institutions, and strategies that demonstrably promote healthy engaged aging—to everyone’s benefit.

For example, contrary to what we believed even in recent decades, exercise can significantly increase muscle mass in older adults, even among nursing home residents; physical and mental exercise can enhance the brain’s plasticity; and meaningful social engagement and activity can reduce the risk of social isolation, depression, and illness, while making a difference in our society.

One very hopeful sign for the future is that leading figures from many fields are starting to recognize that increased longevity is a game-changer for all sectors of society. Through my own service on the Global Agenda Council on Ageing, a special project of The World Economic Forum, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with innovative leaders in business, politics, academia, and health to proactively address how we build a successful aging society from multiple perspectives. We also want to engage the public in this dialogue. Toward this end, the Global Agenda Council on Ageing recently produced an e-book outlining the challenges and opportunities we see, and offering innovative approaches that we plan to undertake in the future.

As another example, the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities provides a model for developing public-private partnerships. In New York City, for instance, the Age-Friendly NYC Commission was established in 2010 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in partnership with the New York City Council and the New York Academy of Medicine. The underlying premise of the commission is that the active participation of older residents in all aspects of city life is essential to the growth and health of the city, and that intentionally creating the conditions to achieve this is a great investment. Last October, this New York City initiative received the international prize for 2013 Best-Existing Age-Friendly Initiative at a meeting in Turkey of the International Federation on Aging.

These examples underscore the importance of investing in research and education on aging and health changes across the life course, and creating the means to achieve this, since the keystone for successful aging is our ability to enjoy good health and function. Having created a new stage of life, the next step is to make it meaningful.

Support for this research was provided by the MetLife Foundation through the MetLife Foundation Silver Scholar Award, administered by the Alliance for Aging Research.

Presented by

Linda P. Fried is the dean and the DeLamar Professor at the Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

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