A perfect marriage: Cities and older citizens

The manageable path— reframing an aging challenge into a longevity potential

In recent years, Tokyo and Seoul, among other Cities of Opportunity, have been at the center of news stories regarding demographic trends in aging populations. Projections estimate that about 900,000 elderly people will live alone in Japan by 2030, up from 600,000 in 2013, and that roughly 470,000 of Japan’s elderly will die alone by 2030 unless more investment is made for their care. In South Korea, the same generation that helped to build the country’s spectacular economic success is finding itself vulnerable in their later years. Help is needed.

Seoul and Tokyo are by no means alone in their experience of a great aging shift that by 2050 will increase the number of people aged 65 and older worldwide by nearly 1 billion, a growth of 183%. Looking at near-term demographics, we project developed economic cities—Milan, Tokyo, Madrid, Berlin, and Stockholm, for example—to have significantly greater proportions of retirees and elderly, while cities in emerging economic regions remain relatively young.

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What does this shift in demographic mean?

The “graying planet” megatrend could foreshadow broad, global challenges to business and economic performance—among them, health, social services, and pension systems that risk being overwhelmed by a massive shift in elderly populations compounded by fewer working-age people to support such systems. Much of this will be happening in cities whose social and physical infrastructure may be tested to serve the needs of a quickly growing elderly population.

But a big part of the solution may be found in the nature of cities themselves—densely populated places often with well-developed shared resources and services.

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The manageable path— reframing an aging challenge into a “longevity dividend”

Most of the world’s aging population will live in the very places where they can be helped effectively—in cities. Discussions of aging demographics often cast the elderly as a projected burden on pension and healthcare systems.

An alternative school of thought sees signs of a longevity value potential. While acknowledging substantial challenges ahead, this outlook suggests that aging populations will not necessarily be “old and infirm” nor will they, of necessity, constitute a drag on economic activity. This “longevity dividend” view anticipates healthier aging, a broad physiological improvement as people remain healthier longer. Many of us recognize this value potential—and continuing vitality— every day in the elder doctors, teachers, public servants, and businesspersons (from CEOs of large corporations to small shop owners) who remain actively engaged in city life.

Less obvious may be the new products and services a healthy aging population demands. The outlook also foresees more productive aging, a policy-based phenomenon that incentivizes more seniors to continue working and contributing to the tax base.

Urban aging is a fact of life, but the story can change from “lonely death” to “longevity dividend”

The longevity dividend applied. Seoul, Stockholm, Tokyo

Solutions are being explored in Seoul, Tokyo, and Stockholm, among other cities. Seoul, for instance, in 2012 developed a comprehensive plan addressing the short- and long-term needs of its growing population of the elderly— including health services, comfortable living conditions, recreation, and the integration of the elderly into daily life. But it’s the title of Seoul’s comprehensive plan, “Happy Old Age in a City of Life’s Second Harvest,” that suggests the city has the healthy and productive aging elements of the longevity dividend squarely in its sights. Indeed, 70% of the program budget (or about $270.5 million) is devoted to short- and long-term senior employment— productive aging. One near-term goal, for example, is the city’s commitment to create 100,000 jobs for aging citizens by 2018—from meal service helpers at schools, to safety patrols, to positions as environmental docents and subway guides.

For cities worldwide, harvesting the longevity dividend will require adjustments in attitudes about what the elderly can accomplish, allowing older citizens to play an important role in work and society. It will also call for pragmatic solutions like aging-in-place to integrate and include the elderly within the communities they’ve always lived in. Technology will lend a hand with creative care and communications solutions that will help the elderly stay in touch. By moving in this direction, cities will position themselves to harvest the dividends of healthy and productive aging.

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