The Monitor's View

Redefining age in aging societies

To keep ahead of an aging society, Britain now has an 'older workers' champion.' The big task, as more people in advanced nations put off retirement, is to shift attitudes about what is 'old.'

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    Indians participate in celebrations to mark International Day of Older Persons in Ahmadabad, India, Oct. 1, 2013.
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Britain may be the first country to appoint an “older workers’ champion.” Last month, pensions expert Ros Altmann was given the task to challenge outdated perceptions of the elderly and rewrite the rules on early retirement.

Her key message to employers and even workers themselves: A person’s talents and experience don’t stop at age 65.

Dr. Altmann’s appointment reflects two trends in wealthier nations. More people are retiring later. And many governments are reversing policies that encourage early retirement.

A host of factors go into a person’s decision to retire, such as money, job availability, life expectancy, and health. But says Altmann, “Too many people retire when they are still capable of making a strong contribution.”

Like many countries, Britain wants to stay ahead of a sharp demographic curve. By 2020, the world will have 13 “super-aged” nations, up from just three today, according to a new report by Moody’s, the credit rating agency. (A super-aged country has more than 1 in  5 people who are 65 or older.) By 2030, the number of these countries will be 34 – and include many developing countries.

To offset the effects of an aging society, governments need to shift public thinking about the abilities of older people. In Britain, that began in June with a government action report called “Fuller Working Lives.” Its main point: “Our attitudes towards older workers must evolve to meet the challenge.”

Governments must move fast. Among 20 advanced countries, most have seen more baby boomers staying in the workforce since 2007, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Much of that trend is likely caused by the recent recession.

But the study also suggests employers must make more room to keep older workers who want to keep working:

“Although some observers are pessimistic about the willingness of employers to accommodate the special needs of an aged workforce, such pessimism may be misplaced. Employers have created millions of part-time jobs to accommodate the needs of students and mothers who are only available to work short weekly hours.... Comparable accommodations could be made for the special needs of older workers.”

Today’s older workers are more educated than their predecessors, allowing them to adapt to flexible hours and be retrained for new skills. Before such reforms can happen, however, employers need improved views.

“To start a reform revolution, it will be very useful to revise and adjust the conventional measurement of aging, in particular the definition of the onset of being considered ‘elderly’ or ‘old,’ ” writes Robert Holzmann of Australia’s Center of Excellence in Population Aging Research in a 2013 scholarly article.

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