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Disrupt Aging: Changing the Conversation on Aging


According to AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, the concept of disrupting aging “is for anyone who insists on living a life of connection, engagement, expansion, and possibility – at any age.”

Working off Jenkins’s book Disrupt Aging, AARP Virginia’s recent program “Disrupt Aging in Your Community” helped participants understand trends in aging and the longevity community, recognize everyone as multi-dimensional individuals, notice the signs of everyday ageism, and identify opportunities to combat ageism and live their best lives.

The presenter, AARP Virginia volunteer Katherine Ponds, began by sharing demographic information and trends and information about the longevity economy. As people live longer and healthier lives, they continue to contribute to society.

In 1900, the average life expectancy was 47 years old, and the 65-plus population was about 4 million, said Ponds. These numbers have grown considerably as people live longer, with a population of 56 million over 65 and an average life expectancy of 70 years in 2020.

By 2060, the expected life expectancy is estimated to be 86, with about 96 million of the population over 65 years of age. Half of children today aged 10 or older are expected to live to age 100, said Ponds.

Ponds shared data from the U.S. Census Bureau showing that in 2010, Florida was the only state with more than 18% of its population aged 65 or more. By 2025, all but two states are expected to fall into that category, with most in the 20% range.

Race, gender, health, geographic location, income, education, and access to services all contribute to today’s average life expectancy of 76 years. Disparities such as unequal access to clean air, water, and healthy food choices, as well as racial disparities, can impact life expectancy, said Ponds.

“It’s a myth that the elderly is a drain on society,” said Ponds. The 50-plus cohort contributes $8.3 million to the U.S. economy, or 40% of the gross domestic product. This has created a new market for products and services.

“We are, and continue to be, valuable,” said Ponds.

In addition, people aged 50 and over contributed $745 billion in unpaid activities in 2018. Over 80% of the unpaid services consist of caregiving, while the remainder is volunteering. The 50-plus population also contributes significantly to the economy, with $7.6 trillion, or 56 cents of every dollar, spent by people 50 and older in 2018. This is expected to rise to $27.5 trillion, or 61 cents of every dollar, by 2050.

There are four generations of Americans in today’s workforce, said Ponds. Over the past 30 years, the average retirement age has increased from 57 to 61, but people are also living longer and healthier lives in retirement.

Another aspect of disrupting aging is recognizing everyone as multi-dimensional individuals and traditional stereotypes should be abandoned. Rather than assuming older adults are confused by technology, in reality 97% of people 50 and older own smartphones. Instead of needing care, most older adults are caregivers.

Older adults are also active in business startups, with 42 being the mean age for all startups. For technology startups, the mean age is 43. The likelihood of success for these startups also increases with age.

“Perceptions of age don’t reflect reality,” said Ponds. For example, many millennials act as caregivers. “AARP is striving to reach everyone to spread the concept of multi-dimensionality,” she said.

Ageism is the process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because of their age. Another key to disrupting aging is to understand and identify everyday ageism.

Ageism, of course, isn’t unique to older individuals. The key, said Ponds, is learning to identify and combat it. She gave several examples of age-related comments that can be rephrased.

For example, instead of saying “You look great for your age,” say: “You look great.” Instead of “Can I help you, young lady,” just say: “Can I help you?” “You’re so mature for your generation” works better as simply “You’re so mature.”

Age discrimination in the workplace comes at a cost. In 2018, workplace discrimination against Americans aged 50 and over cost the U.S. economy $850 million. That’s more than the entire economy of Switzerland.

Negative aspects of age discrimination in the workplace include involuntary retirement, underemployment, and unemployment. By recognizing and addressing ageism, the workforce could see positive aspects like more people 50-plus employed, better wage growth opportunities and fewer part-time and low paying jobs, and less time spent looking for work.

“Age should not be a factor,” said Ponds, who formerly worked in career management. She urged attendees to think about their own internal biases as a first step.

The fourth step to disrupting aging is to identify opportunities to combat ageism and live your best life. Studies show that people who have positive perceptions about aging when they are young live an average of 7.5 years longer than those who don’t have positive perceptions when young.

Today’s older adults are generally positive about aging. They are comfortable with themselves and their lives and feel they have a sense of purpose. This attitude comes from living longer and healthier lives.

When Ponds asked participants to suggest ways they can disrupt aging in their communities, suggestions included volunteering; seeking friendships with those who are different, including different ages and cultures; and talking to friends and family about aging.

“Do what you love as long as you can and enjoy doing it,” said one participant in an online comment.

“There are more opportunities today than ever to keep living our best lives,” said Ponds. “Everyone needs to feel good about the age you are, regardless of your age.”

To learn more about disrupting aging, visit AARP’s Disrupt Aging page.

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