It's Older People's Day (1 October 2013), so time to celebrate the golden retirement years and campaign for better care homes? No. Actually, older people are going to be the most influential force of change in our society for many years to come. Similar to the rise and impact of youth culture in the 1950s and 60s, the changing demographics of the UK (along with most of the developed world) will transform the places where we work and live. What's needed today is a spark in awareness of the positive ways in which increasing numbers of skilled and knowledgeable older people will impact on all our lives - and how employers, businesses and governments can benefit.
Helping people to stay in work for longer is a critical part of the change. The lifting of the default retirement age is a clear sign of the government's view on the importance of older people to the economy. Older employees will help with safeguarding pension provision; employers get the chance to keep hold of valuable experience, and more older people will be able to take advantage of the money and other benefits from being in work. Will this keep younger people out of the workforce? There is no evidence of this. In fact the opposite is true. If organisations are more successful - thanks to the contributions of older workers - this can mean more jobs for people of all ages. Extending working life by just 18 months is estimated to contribute £15billion to the UK economy.
But, of course, working longer is not what everyone wants to do, or can do. For some older people there will be a choice. But for others staying in work may, given the present economic climate, be a necessity. Whatever happens employers will need to be more ready to adapt offices and workplaces and their working practices in order to suit the needs of more older workers. This means more workplaces with an age-friendly culture that offer more flexible working hours and work breaks (for caring duties for example). Workplaces must reflect a change in attitudes that increasingly recognises older employees as an asset - rather than people who are 'winding down' and of diminishing value. Linked to this is the requirement (now embodied in the legislation) that such equality of older people in the workforce means equal access to training opportunities, career progression and the like. And on a practical level it means more assistive technologies in the workplace to help everyone make better use of IT, give better access to buildings, etc.
Following from this, we need to think about the way in which our towns and cities can be made 'age-friendly'. The World Health Organisation started setting out guidelines for 'age-friendly cities' in 2005 and runs a related development programme. In practice this means we should be moving to higher standards of public transport; more pedestrianisation of public spaces; more affordable (and suitable) housing for older people who don't want to be looked after, and housing which is in city centres - close to the action rather than in suburbs with limited facilities; and more community and home-based care, health, and 'ablement' services. Of course any age-friendly city should be one that is designed for the benefit of all its citizens. It is far cheaper and easier to design future proof city spaces than to have to implement make-shift amendments after the event.
It must be remembered that older people are one of the fastest growing consumer groups. Their significance is only likely to increase - recognised by manufacturers and retailers in their marketing and use of media. Already 80% of the UK's wealth is owned by people over the age of 45 years. In the car industry for example, a huge new market is being eyed by manufacturers. In the US they expect the number of drivers age 70+ to triple in the next 20 years. Car design will need to evolve to suit the needs of this emerging market including easier forms of entry, and more active dashboard with a wider range of audible and visual prompts or warnings.
A useful reference point might be taken as the success of the Paralympics Games last year. This demonstrated beyond doubt what this country is good at. It challenged people to re-think disability and see a person's true potential. In the same way we hope that on Older People's Day we will begin to re-think some of our ideas about what it is to be old; to challenge some of the stereotypes and prejudices that exist in our society and recognize the true value of an individual regardless of age.
The picture outlined here only hints at the sheer variety of changes in our thinking that are needed. Many of those changes will involve the development of new products, services and opportunities for jobs. They will provide a kind of new impetus that our flagging economy desperately needs. An ageing society is still typically regarded by many as a source of problems. But it is only a problem if workplaces, design and attitudes do not evolve in response to the inevitable social changes coming.