Graying world population sparks need for policies and programs that support productive aging

Worldwide, people aged 60 and above will comprise 13.6 percent of the population by 2020, and 22.1 percent of the population by 2050. China is the most rapidly aging country with older adults making up 13 percent of their population.

“All countries will need to develop policies and programs that support productive engagement during later life,” says Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, the Ralph and Muriel Pumphrey Professor of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.

“There is evidence that productive engagement in later life benefits both older adults and society at large. Expanding opportunities for productive engagement may increase the health and well-being of the older population. At the same time, older adults can be a valuable resource for growth in volunteering, civic service, caregiving, employment, and social entrepreneurship.”

Morrow-Howell is a faculty associate at the Center for Social Development (CSD) at WUSTL’s Brown School.

Du Peng, PhD, professor and director of the Institute of Gerontology at Renmin University of China, says that most societies are organized with few opportunities for older adults.

“The goal should be to think about opportunities and supports for volunteering, working, caregiving, tutoring and other productive engagement during the older years,” he says. “Most societies — including both the United States and China — have barely begun to think about this.”

CSD has been conducting applied research on productive aging topics since 1998 and produced a seminal book, Productive Aging: Concepts and Challenges, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2001.

In 2009, CSD and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences organized the first academic discussion on productive aging in China at Shandong University. The impact of that conference has been significant.

In August, over 300 gerontology scholars from mainland China, the United States, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, as well as governments officials and practitioners from the China National Committee on Aging and the Ministry of Civil Affairs, will come together at Peking University to discuss strategies to address population aging.

“Cross-national research and discussion can advance knowledge and innovations — countries will learn from each other,” Morrow-Howell says.

The aim of the conference, Productive Aging in China: Toward Evidence-Based Practice and Policy, is to galvanize work on the productive engagement of older adults as a strategy to strengthen families and communities in China as well as to promote the health of older adults.

“Going forward, we will think and act differently about being old,” says Michael Sherraden, PhD, director of CSD and Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development at the Brown School. “There will be more emphasis on human capital and the potential of the older population to address challenges of aging societies.”