Creating Community for a Lifetime



Seizing the Opportunities Offered by an Aging Population

Where others see a "gray dawn," Marc Freedman sees the potential for a "prime time."

Doomsayers see America's aging boom as a major problem to be solved, a "gray dawn" that threatens the wellbeing of future generations. Aging expert Marc Freedman sees the demographic shift differently - as potentially a "prime time" offering an unprecedented opportunity for older adults and for communities.

Freedman offered his upbeat perspective in the keynote address for "A New Vision of Aging," a May 25 community forum attended by more than 400 people. The event kicked off Creating Community for a Lifetime, a community-wide planning initiative aimed at preparing Kent County for the issues and opportunities inherent in an aging population.

Freedman and a host of demographers agree that America is in the midst of a demographic revolution, fueled by a combination of the "longevity revolution" and the aging of the baby boom generation. Among the statistics they cite:

While acknowledging that "Certainly there are going to be challenges to an aging society, and the sooner we address them the better," Freedman disagrees with those who see the aging of America as an unmitigated disaster. "We focus a lot on the problems [related to an aging population]," he says, "but we're just beginning to crawl when it comes to the opportunities."

Older Adults: A Growing Natural Resource

There's a cognitive dissonance, Freedman says, between the gloomy scenarios painted by many social commentators and the progress that's been made in achieving a better quality of life for older Americans, such as reducing the percent of those over 65 who are in poverty from 40 percent several decades ago to 10 per cent today. "Older Americans are the healthiest, best educated and wealthiest in the history of the U.S.," he says. "How could something so good be so bad?"

"In a world where we're used to things getting worse, many things are getting better."

In fact, "In the older population of today and the coming generations, we have the country's only growing natural resources."

Freedman believes that older adults can be a key resource to address what he sees as a human resources crisis in our society. This crisis is reflected in teacher shortages in urban schools, long waiting lists for mentor programs, and the need to replace the volunteer resources that have been lost as women - once "the glue that held communities together" through their work in PTAs and other organizations - have entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, Freedman says.

Working-age Americans lead increasingly busy lives, Freedman points out, averaging 134 more working hours in a year than in the past. At the same time, retirement frees up time - on average, 18 hours a week for women and 24 hours a week for men.

With the wisdom gained from time lived as family members, employees, and citizens, older adults represent the most experienced segment of society, a valuable and much-needed repository of social capital, according to Freedman. "We need things that only humans - especially experienced humans - can bring."

Involving older adults in addressing social issues represents a win-win situation, beneficial in terms of strengthening both communities and older adults, says Freedman. He points to surveys showing that maintaining strong social ties and having the chance to continue to be productive are significant factors in "successful aging."

Freedman warns, however, that significant structural and attitudinal barriers must be overcome in order to reap this potential windfall of social capital. For example, too many of the volunteer opportunities available to older adults are designed more to keep them busy rather than to take advantage of their experience and accumulated knowledge. In addition, too many cultural messages promote the idea of retirement as a time of self-absorbed rest and leisure - the "golden years," - rather than a time for renewal and active engagement in exploring new challenges and new ways of contributing.

Evidence of these barriers is reflected in a paradox: although older adults vote at higher levels than other age groups and are the most philanthropic age segment, their participation in public service is significantly lower than other age groups. At the same time, surveys show that large numbers of older adults want to be engaged, connected and contributing in retirement.

Creating a New Stage of Life

Beneath all the "numbing numbers" of the demographic revolution, Freedman says, something big is happening: a new stage of life - what some call the "third age" - is being created, just as stages such as childhood and adolescence were created in response to cultural shifts in earlier eras. The cultural change that is taking place now calls for innovation, for the creation of new institutions.

A new generation of role models - older adults innovating new ways of contributing - is emerging, according to Freedman. As examples, he cites former president Jimmy Carter, whose post-presidency social justice work is widely perceived as eclipsing the contributions of his presidency; retired health care professionals who have established free health clinics in low-income neighborhoods; retirees living in "deliberately multi-generational" foster care villages; and the 100,000 older adults who caravan around the country in their recreational vehicles, building houses for Habitat for Humanity.

As these examples indicate, Freedman says, "Demography isn't necessarily destiny. It's in our hands. There's an enormous opportunity to bring together in a mutually beneficial way our society's unmet needs and the untapped resources of the older adult population."