How Aging Can Drive Progress for Humans

How Aging Can Drive Progress for Humans

There are some surprising benefits to our globally aging population

Attila Barabas/Thinkstock

My kids love to play with the display of canes at the drugstore. They hobble about, being “grandpas,” with wobbly steps. For some reason, this also involves declarations of, “Let’s play miniature golf!” I’m not sure where they formed these ideas on aging— I wasn’t aware that putt-putt and gray hair went together so closely. There’s more solid reporting coming from the National Research University Higher School of Economics, a social sciences school in Russia. In newly published research, two of the university’s senior research fellows looked at what the effect on the world will be when, in 20 years, we have nearly double the current number of retired persons. That adds up to 600 million more seniors, or, if you ask my kids, way more putt-putt golfing.

According to the United Nations, the number of people aged 65 and older will be nearly a billion by 2030, with the age bracket of those aged 80 and up particularly booming. This is due not just to an aging population but also to declining birthrates. (We’re looking at you, Japan.) On the plus side, the researchers found that this population aging will have some advantages.

It will force societies to help older people stay in the workplace longer, finding solutions for employees to stay healthy and full of energy—otherwise, we’ll have workforce shortages. It will encourage the development of labor saving technology, such as robotics, which could possibly act as helpers to caregiver humans. And it will lead to more breakthroughs in medicine, the researchers say, particularly areas such as nano and cognitive technologies.

Still, all this longevity will also come at a potential cost. There could be more generational conflict, the researchers warn. And, as older employees stay in the workforce longer, this could hinder younger workers’ careers, which could in turn slow down technological progress.

It’s fascinating to think about how aging will influence—for better and for worse—our global challenges.

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.

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