Aging world population represents opportunity, says WUSTL aging experts

China’s population of adults over 65 tops 100 million. This number is steadily growing, putting China at the forefront of a global demographic shift that includes the United States and other developed nations.

“While a common tendency is to focus on the burdens an aging population will place on a country’s economic and social welfare, an aging society represents an opportunity, not just a crisis,” said Nancy Morrow-Howell, Ph.D., the Ralph & Muriel Pumphrey Professor of Social Work at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

“Expanding opportunities for productive engagement, including paid employment, formal volunteering and mutual aid, may reduce social costs by reducing health-care expenses and need for post-retirement income supports,” Morrow-Howell said. “Older adults are a valuable source of growth in volunteerism and civic service. Evidence suggests that older employees benefit their workplace, increasing experience, stability and reliability.

“There also is evidence that productive engagement in later life increases health and well-being,” she said.

The older population in the United States follows the global growth pattern. By 2050, older adults are projected to account for 25.5 percent of the U.S. population. Older adults in the United States are increasingly seeking out opportunities to remain productive, with volunteering rates for adults aged 65 and older reaching 23.5 percent in 2008.

As the aging population grows, it will be important to develop social and policy supports that foster productive activity in later life.

“The imperative to change policies and expectations about aging in America is based on evidence that ongoing productive engagement produces positive outcomes for older adults, their families, communities and society as a whole,” Morrow-Howell said.

She points to the recent Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act as a productive aging policy. The act encourages volunteer work among older adults by offering an educational award that could be transferred to a child or grandchild.

Morrow-Howell said there also is a need for policies that support older people serving in a care-giving role or transitioning to a new career, such as Social Security credits or fellowships.

Meanwhile, China is dealing with the unique “Four-Two-One” problem, said Li Zou, international director of the Brown School’s Center for Social Development (CSD). Zou said China’s one-child policy has led to one child being responsible for taking care of two parents and four grandparents.

China is beginning to look at policy changes to support older adults, including possibly raising the mandatory retirement age for all employees, Zou said.

Morrow-Howell, Zou and colleagues focused on the growing population of older adults during a conference that represented China’s first national conversation about productive aging. The conference, which was conceived and co-sponsored by the CSD, drew approximately 200 scholars from mainland China and overseas. The conference examined effectively harnessing the human capital of older adults to perform important and meaningful roles.

“Scholars on the productive engagement of the older population point to the wealth of knowledge, skills and experience that older adults can contribute to society and recommend policies that support older adults in productive roles,” Morrow-Howell said.

Many older Chinese adults already are engaged in productive activity, including caregiving, lifelong learning, volunteering and employment. However, both Morrow-Howell and Zou said that older adults — in China and elsewhere — often face significant barriers and “dis-incentives” to their ongoing participation in productive roles.

Ageism and policies and programs that result in older adults leaving the workforce prevent countries from fully benefitting from the human capital of their aging population.

Zou said China faces an additional cultural barrier to productive aging. “Chinese people may be reluctant to retire at a later age for fear that it would reflect poorly on their families,” Zou said. “Trad-itionally, families are expected to take care of their elders after retirement.”

No matter the geographic location, barriers to participation in productive roles also have consequences for the health and well-being of older adults. Research has demonstrated associations between physical health, mental health, life satisfaction and longevity and sustained engagement in employment or volunteer activities.