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Aging population offers potential, too

By Harvey Morris | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-11-05 16:00

It's time to stop viewing elderly as a costly burden, looking instead at the opportunities they present

Are you a third-ager? A senior? Maybe a silver surfer? They are all relatively polite ways of expressing the stark reality that you are getting old - or already are.

In some modern Western societies, old age is viewed almost as a certified ailment, a troublesome problem that must be confronted. By contrast, in China and other Asian societies, advancing years tend to be associated with greater wisdom and maturity rather than an inevitable descent toward unproductive senility.

However, in an era of changing demographics, policy planners in many parts of the world are having to face up to similar challenges presented by their aging populations.

Xinhua News Agency last week quoted the Ministry of Civil Affairs as saying the number of Chinese citizens age 60 and above topped 230 million in 2016, representing 16.7 percent of the country's population. The agency said the China Association of Mayors estimates that figure will hit 480 million by 2050.

Similar estimates from the European Union indicate that a quarter of Europeans will be 60 or older by the end of the decade, while in the United States the number of those over 65 is expected to double by 2060.

The numbers create inevitable headaches for national authorities, including the rising costs of pensions and healthcare for the elderly that have to be paid for by a declining proportion of younger, economically productive people.

Medical advances have meanwhile led to an increase in life expectancy in many countries without necessarily increasing the quality of life of the elderly.

Chinese authorities said back in 2013 that China would respond actively to the aging of the population, speed up welfare reforms and develop a service industry for the elderly. Reforms have included new social insurance projects geared to the elderly and increased medical coverage.

Just as vital to meeting the demographic challenges is to stop treating old age merely as a problem and to look toward the potential opportunities offered by the older generation.

In the Irish capital of Dublin this week, The Third Act organization held its latest conference on the challenges and opportunities of living longer.

"Medical advancements and technological developments have ensured once people reach 50 they still have a whole lifetime stretching out ahead of them," conference organizer Edward Kelly told local media. "This is exciting, this is an opportunity - this is the 'third act' and it is, as yet, totally undefined."

The current debate is an indication that members of the older generation are becoming more proactive in determining their fate and are pushing back against the perception that they are just a costly burden.

Despite a widespread prejudice that older people have been swamped by rapidly advancing information technology to the point of being internet-illiterate, official statistics in the United Kingdom showed internet use more than tripled among those over 65 between 2006 and 2013. Many older people were opting to go online for banking, shopping, entertainment, healthcare and communications.

In the UK and other Western countries, workers are no longer obliged to quit most jobs at 65 if they feel fit and able to continue. British job applicants are no longer required to tell prospective employers their age.

Perhaps one of the most significant shifts in attitudes has been toward education, once regarded as the natural preserve of the young.

China has embraced the concept of lifelong learning, which has been seen to prolong both mental and physical health.

China now has some 60,000 educational institutions for the elderly, with many courses geared to those among their 7 million students who want to remain economically active.

It's not just about work, of course. One college has offered courses in English for elderly travelers. Whether it is for work or play, it is never too late to learn.

The author is a senior editorial consultant for China Daily. Contact the writer at

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