The future of growing old
Chico State lecture outlines what world’s aging population could mean for new generation
“If you had to describe the future of aging in one word, based on the knowledge you have right now, what word comes to mind?”
That question was posed to about 20 Chico State students on April 8 at the beginning of a presentation by professor Seema Sehrawat, director of the university’s Interdisciplinary Center on Aging, titled, “Is the Future Ready for Our Aging Population?”
The responses from students were decidedly negative, including “death,” “helpless,” and, of course, “wrinkles.”
But Sehrawat, a native of India and self-described “aging enthusiast,” imparted a much different perspective. The world’s population is aging at a rate unparalleled in human history, she said, and opportunities abound for both young and old. As baby boomers retire, a new generation of young professionals will be relied upon not only to fill gaps in the workforce, but also to create innovative products and technologies catering to older adults. Meanwhile, those advancements will enable the elderly to enjoy many years of active and independent lifestyles post retirement.
“The fastest growing career industry in the next 20 years will be working with older adults,” Sehrawat said. “If you want good jobs, that will be the No. 1 industry there for you—no matter what your major is.”
Prior to the industrial revolution, Sehrawat explained, there was no such thing as retirement. In a society mostly based on agriculture, most American families lived and worked on farms, caring for elders together. When industrialization shifted the population to cities, families became more nuclear, and “we all started believing new is better than old,” Sehrawat said. “The older adults in our society lost that place of reverence, of having wisdom, of being a valuable part of the family.”
Now, due in large part to the post-World War II baby boom, there are proportionately more older adults in the United States than in previous generations, and the story is the same the world over. In 2012, about 11 percent of the world’s population—or 809 million people—were 65 years or older, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. That figure is projected to jump to 22 percent of the world’s population, or 2.03 billion people, by 2050. The aging trend is particularly relevant in Butte County; as of the last census, nearly 16 percent of Butte County residents were 65 years old or older.
So, what does all this mean for Chico State students entering the workforce?
Baby boomers control more than 70 percent of U.S. wealth and are notoriously free-spending, purchasing more than half of consumer packaged goods. As they move into retirement, a massive industry catering to their desire to remain active members of their communities is emerging, Sehrawat said. She pointed to new apps that can transform old smartphones into remote security cameras for home monitoring systems as just one example of technology that will help older adults remain independent.
“Boomers are going to transform how we view aging,” she said. As it is, the widespread perception that most retirees are relegated to a quiet life in a nursing home simply isn’t true. In fact, only about 5 percent of people 65 years old or older live in nursing homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “That means a lot of opportunities for us to think creatively,” Sehrawat said. “What can I do for my grandmother, who lives in a different state and is more active than me?”
At the conclusion of Sehrawat’s presentation, she asked again what came to mind when students thought of aging. This time, the responses were much different: “opportunity,” “wisdom,” “enjoyment” and “freedom.”