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Aging And Independence: What We Can Learn From Hollywood

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After Davy Jones of The Monkees died of a massive heart attack at age 66 last week, the Twitter world was abuzz, offering a sort of democratic eulogy of the lifelong entertainer. Most surprising about the deluge of tweets: Most people said that Jones, at 66, had died too young. When Jones was born in 1945, life expectancy for males across the developed world was 66.

How vastly our ideas of aging have changed over the course of his lifetime. Now, death at age 66 is "tragic" because it's too young. But how deeply have we embraced this 21st century version of
middle and old age
?

Many people in their 60s, 70s and 80s display enormous vitality, of course -- which was especially obvious at the most recent Oscars. The "whole night looked like an AARP pep rally," reported The New York Times, as Morgan Freeman, Billy Crystal and Meryl Streep held center stage -- all of them now also qualifying for senior discounts at the local Holiday Inn. Age has become Hollywood's new selling point.

This was true, too, at the Golden Globes, which included former senator Chris Dodd, in his 60s, now in an "encore career" as chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America. (And let's not forget Dustin Hoffman, who at age 74 has graduated to directing his first feature film.) For all this celebration attached to the entertainment world, though, we continue to have an outdated model of working and aging outside of Hollywood. We're still monkeying around with models of aging and retirement that are not at all a fit for today's demographic facts.

Nor is the topic just an American one. A recent report in The Economist noted that the number of people in the workforce is seriously diminishing. Countries all over the world are witnessing their dependency ratios -- the ratio of people not working depending on those who are -- reach unprecedented numbers. With life expectancies running into the 80s and 90s, but with retirement ages solidly stuck in 19th-century thinking, skyrocketing dependency ratios will halt economic growth.

Public and private sector policies need to enable older workers to stay productive as we age. To
achieve this, we need a healthy and active aging model, led in part by technology-fueled solutions to what now seem like insurmountable challenges.

A case in point is the closer-to-reality-than-you'd-think "autonomous car." It sounds like something out of Isaac Asimov, but the self-driving car is already on the road. Google's version has already traveled over 200,000 miles in California. And Audi's has scaled Pike's Peak in Colorado. If public policy can keep pace with technology, these cars will be on the road en masse within the decade. Think about how that could transform the lives of older adults who suffer from losses in vision or delays in decision-making. For millions upon millions of people, the self-driving car would open untold possibilities.

Add in advances in medical treatments for macular degeneration -- a deterioration of vision as one ages -- and you begin to see, in just one area, huge leaps in healthy, and therefore, active aging. These advances will be good for society as they help transform the numbers of those who can continue to be economic growth drivers in our 21st century. Innovation provides a path to keep the dependency ratio in check -- as it will climb to well over the 30-percent level for many countries if we don't profoundly turn our aging populations into active and contributing citizenry (and in the process, change even more profoundly the ways in which social norms come to define old and middle age).

Now that we expect great things of Hollywood's senior citizens, how about the rest of us? It's not often that Tinseltown and made-for-TV boy bands can teach us valuable economic lessons. It turns out they can -- and we risk missing those lessons at our peril.

Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, and Executive Director of The Global Coalition on Aging.