Halima Khan - 27.02.2013
What would you do with an extra five hours a day? Have a lie in; catch up on work; go on a big night out?
Well, astonishingly, that's what you already have - an extra five hours a day. The catch is that those extra hours are being added on to the end of our lives through increasing lifespans. This five hour figure comes from the work of Professor Tom Kirkwood at Newcastle University who has calculated what current lifespan increases are equivalent to on a daily basis. It's an unexpected phenomenon. Demographers expected life expectancies to plateau, but they've kept on rising.
When we combine these increasing life expectancies with the impact of Baby Boomers entering later life, our assumptions about ageing and what it means to be 'old' are fundamentally challenged. Not only do we have more time in the second half of our lives than ever before, but the expectations and characteristics of people over 50 are also changing. Marc Freedman, a US social entrepreneur, calls this the "Big Shift" - the opportunity to create a new map of life and a life course designed for much longer life spans.
At Nesta we agree that the demographic shift creates an innovation imperative: a drive to create models of living and working fit for the future, not the past. However, there are four ways in which the current approach to ageing is failing to deliver.
The first is that innovation in ageing tends to focus on the dramatic advances we've witnessed in science and technology in fields such as regenerative medicine and diagnostics. However, innovation is also needed in our social institutions such as the labour market and models of social care. The social institutions we're living with were designed for much shorter lifespans and many fewer older people.
The second failure is the tendency to define ageing by what it's not: not working, not contributing, not being physically capable. In contrast, older people are more likely to set up successful new businesses, provide unpaid care for their peers, to be happier and better off than their younger counterparts. Professor Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity describes the ageing population as an opportunity: millions of talented, emotionally stable citizens who are healthier and better educated than previous generations and equipped with knowledge and motivation.
The third is that the mainstream ageing debate also tends to focus on single issues - like social care funding or pension reform - and assumes that a technical fix is sufficient. It's clear that we actually need change on many different fronts: markets as well as policies, behaviours as well as products, and in our social norms as well as through new technologies. In short, we need to think of the ageing population as a systemic challenge requiring a whole set of changes across political, cultural, product and market domains.
And the fourth is a failure to engage with the complexity of ageing and to create a robust evidence base of what interventions support us to age well. Our socio-economic status is a stronger determinant of how we age than chronology. We must avoid jumping from one ageing stereotype to another: from an image of quiet, incapacitated people sitting in care homes, to a new stereotype of hyper-wealthy, hyper-healthy Baby Boomers reading tablet computers while pedalling in their home gym. The reality is much more complicated and it's vital that this complexity is underpinned by an evidence base of what we need to age well.
Despite these failures of the mainstream ageing debate, there are many creative and talented people coming up with new models for living better in an ageing society. One of our priorities is to create better links between the burgeoning field of ageing innovators and macro debates on ageing. So, to capture existing innovation activity, we're putting together an interactive living map of innovations in ageing. This beta version has 80 examples of innovations from across the world. We'll be developing the map further over the coming months and would love it to grow to several hundred examples. Our hope it that it becomes a useful resource for innovators in the ageing space and we invite you to submit examples to be included and to comment on those already there.
So, it's clear that we need to innovate and innovate fast to adapt well to ageing population. It's a significant challenge, and an important one. We cannot continue to use yesterday's tools to solve tomorrow's issues - we need models of living and working that are fit for the future: a future where entering the second half of our lives is not the beginning of the end, but the start of something new.
Halima Khan is a Director in the Public Services Lab
"Five hours a day: systemic innovation for an ageing population" is published today along with the living map of ageing innovations at www.ageinginnovators.org
This report makes the case for a systematic look at how we live in an ageing society, to create models of living and working fit for the future.
Download the report