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Grey matters

Ageing societies must harness the skills and experience of the “silver tsunami” to ease the strain on public resources – and keep the sustainability agenda on track, writes John Elkington.

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Over the years, I have met a surprising number of robots in Japan, including Aibo, Sony’s robotic dog. And one thing I have been told repeatedly is that the Japanese obsession with robots is partly fuelled by a concern that the ageing of the country’s population will trigger huge demand for elderly care, which people would very much prefer was met by machines than by immigrant workers. 

True or not, a recent robotics fair in Japan featured humanoid waiters, mechanical arms and robotic wheelchairs, many of these products reflecting the needs and wants of a country where life expectancy is now 86 years for women and 79 years for men. You might wonder whether we will see a future where robots tend the elderly, doing everything from lifting them in and out of bed through to reading their faces to know what they are likely to want next.

As a “baby boomer”, one of the post-war generation that has had such an impact on the world, for better and worse, I am now a reasonably fit 61-year-old. Like many boomers, I have no thoughts of retirement, imagining at least another 15 to 20 years of useful work. But I am increasingly concerned about the impact of the ageing trend on politics – and on the appetite in greying societies for the sort of transformational economic, technological and social changes that will be required to shift the global economy onto a more sustainable footing.

A world of 9 billion people by mid-century will be unsustainable in multiple dimensions without profound technological, economic, social and political transformations. And our chances of success will be massively compromised if we fail to work out how to tackle the most critical demographic challenge in the developed world, the ageing trend that some now call the “silver tsunami”. That’s why we have created a consortium of Volans, Cranfield University and Accenture to explore some of the implications of related demographic trends for entrepreneurship and the sustainability agenda.

The ageing of the baby boom generation could not only herald growing strains on health care, housing and pension systems, but also – even more alarming – a fading of the appetite for transformational social and economic change that will be necessary to adapt our technologies, business models, lifestyles and economies to the environmental realities of the twenty-first century. 

There is an upside, however. There will be exciting opportunities both to use new business models to meet the needs of the over-50s and to mobilise the knowledge, skills, experience, contacts and financial resources of retirees and those moving towards retirement.

The implications of an ageing society should be particularly important for businesses committed to corporate responsibility (CR), yet in practice they do not yet appear to be integrated into the wider CR agenda. This is pretty much analogous to the disability issue some 15 to 20 years ago. A quick review of the websites of major CR organisations shows little material – and few initiatives – on ageing. There has been very little attention paid, so far, to what would be the responsible business approach to an ageing society.

The ideal outcome, of course, would be one where the issue of age became less significant, in effect an “ageless society”. On current trends, however, we are as likely to see societies splintering into age-denominated (and increasingly gated) communities. Market research is beginning to explore “grey” markets, and the degree to which they are served by current generations of products and services. One conclusion: older people seem to be moving into a “buy now, worry later” mindset, though it will be interesting to see to what extent that has survived the global downturn.

A central dynamic is that an ageing society means a larger number of older consumers – and a larger percentage of spending power controlled by older people. There is going to be greater demand for certain types of products and services. Will financial institutions offer more tailored equity-release schemes for older people to finance long-term care? Will pharmaceutical companies, for example, invest more in research and development to create new products offering not just enhanced longevity but greater functional, physical and mental longevity? Will retailers customise services for older people?

Business will need to work out how to use older workers to the best effect. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Christoph Loch, professor of technology management at business school INSEAD, and two colleagues looks at what happened when car company BMW decided to staff one of its production lines with workers of an age likely to be typical at the firm in 2017. At first “the pensioners’ line” was less productive. But the firm brought it up to the level of the rest of the factory by introducing 70 relatively small changes, such as new chairs, comfier shoes, magnifying lenses and adjustable tables.

Whether we like it or not, defusing this demographic time bomb will claim a growing share of the attention of political and business leaders. We must urgently develop business models that help harness the skills, experience, connections and financial resources of those in – or just entering – the second half of their lives in order to tackle social, environmental and governance challenges. 

Whether or not I end up being cared for by a robot, an outcome I would hate, we must now work out ways to re-ignite, ignite or channel the entrepreneurial abilities of some of our best-trained people, who are either retired or approaching that point. We must create the pre-conditions of an ageless society. In the ideal win-win outcome, we would help counter the natural tendency of older people to resist change, boost the resources available to leading change-makers and help emerging sustainability solutions to evolve and scale.

John Elkington is executive chairman of Volans and non-executive director at SustainAbility.

Homepage image by dshack 

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匿名 | Anonymous

老年人的生活比年轻人的更可持续

我们迫切需要采取的一个解决方法就是减少消费,尽管变革的支持者们都不愿意接受。

当今的社会年龄结构中,很多人都太年轻,所以不记得在二战后那段朴素岁月里简单的愉悦都很便宜(而且可持续)。

读到这里真是令人沮丧,老年人抵制变革的自然趋势是多么无礼的行文——这些变革对管理工作相当必要,而且充满智慧。

老年人不想被商家纠缠,敦促他们花掉催款,或者在一项浮士德式的条款中用灵魂换来更多轻浮。

The elderly live more sustainably than the youthful

The one solution which we urgently need but which proponents of change are most reluctant to accept is for us to consume less.

Many in today's aging society are now too young to remember that simple pleasures were inexpensive (and sustainable) during the years of post-World War II austerity.

It is depressing to read that the natural tendency of the elderly to resist change - essential for stewardship and often characterised by wisdom - is so disrespected.

The elderly do not want to be pestered by enteprises urging them to part with their savings or indeed exchange their soul in a Faustian pact for a bit more frivolity.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

中国的老龄化问题

中国社会科学院财政与贸易经济研究所10日发布《中国财政政策报告2010/2011》指出,2011年以后的30年里,中国人口老龄化将呈现加速发展态势,到2030年,中国65岁以上人口占比将超过日本,成为全球人口老龄化程度最高的国家。到2050年,社会进入深度老龄化阶段。

China's ageing problem

On September 10, the Institute of Finance and Trade Economics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published the "Chinese Fiscal Policy Report 2010/2011", which points out that in thirty years from 2011 the ageing of the Chinese population will accelerate, and by 2030 the percentage of Chinese people above 65 years of age will surpass that of Japan, making China the country with the highest proportion of old people. By 2050 society will enter an advanced stage of ageing.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

市场细分分出的碎片

市场/消费者驱动经济的一个结果是识别和分析特定的社会群体,并进行销售。即使是受个人提升专业地位的欲望驱使而进行的学术研究,也遵循相似的行为模式。所有这些行为都强调差异,一些差异是值得重视的,另一些则不然。我们需要人类共同点的制衡力量,还需要特殊的人才和能力。理想化的“永恒社会”意味着什么?我们会形容,更重要的是,重视社会的人们,只因他们的自身以及他们对社会作出的贡献,而不是因一个在历史书上恰好有时间关联的“人造”区别。

Fragmentation by Market Segmentation

One outcome of the capitalist/consumerist drive is the identifying, analyzing, and selling to specific segments of society. Even academic research, which is often driven at a practical level by individual desire for professional advancement, follows similar patterns of behavior. All this activity highlights differences, some important, others not. Counterbalancing forces that focus on what all of us have in common are needed, as well as special talents and abilities. What would an ideal "ageless society" mean? We would describe, and more importantly, value people for who they are, and what they are contributing to society, not in terms of an "artificial" distinction that happens to have chronological relevance in history books.