Environment Out, Aging In

04/04/2013 05:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2013

Sixty years ago, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring introduced the concept of "environmentalism." Her analysis of pesticides triggered international uproar, and people began thinking in an entirely new way about how they should live in this world.

Twenty years ago, the environmental movement was in full swing. Rock stars were activists; actors were spokesmen; schools taught children reading, writing, and recycling. Billions were spent on environmental causes, and being "green" and "sustainable" was on its way to becoming common sense.

Today, in light of new scientific evidence, we must ask ourselves: Have we overreacted? As the always level-headed Economist suggests, climate change may not be as big of a threat as we had previously imagined. If the scientific opinion cited by the Economist is right, then it seems that our creative, intellectual and financial resources might be better invested in a different "issue."

Indeed, it's not just our environmental practices that need to be sustainable. Today, and looking ahead to mid-century, what is most dangerously un-sustainable is the way that we govern our aging process. Lifespans are extending as a result of twenty-first century medical breakthroughs, but we still cling to the benefits that were first introduced by Otto von Bismarck and by Bevin and Roosevelt.

This is a recipe for global economic and social disaster. And we're barely paying attention. But where to start?

In 2000, the United Nation's established its list of Millennium Development Goals . This list identified eight priorities to which the global community should commit itself. These eight goals are each worthy and fully justified, but the time has come to recognize what we missed, because there is and can be no sustainability in the decades ahead unless we re-calibrate our social and economic institutions to align to population aging.

As we have seen over the past few decades with the environmental movement, we are capable of making unbelievable progress when we are coordinated and committed. Truly, the innovations and behavioral changes triggered by the environmental movement have been extraordinary. Even more remarkable have been the cultural and social changes, where recycling has become part of our language and literally the air we breathe. Now, it is time to channel some of that intellectual and creative energy into "sustainable aging."

What is "sustainable aging"?

Most simply, sustainable aging means making social and economic decisions that enable our age-related institutions to endure in the long-term. It is re-approaching what it means to age in the 21st century as lives extend and birth rates plummet. It means re-thinking how we are to live throughout all stages of our life so that we can remain healthy, active, productive members of society in our 60s, 70s, and 80s. And that we calibrate public policy on the assumption this is to be enabled and assumed. Or, as well put by the World Economic Forum e-book, Global Population Aging: Peril or Promise? let's make it on the promise sides for as many of us as possible.

Sustainable aging builds from the same belief as environmental sustainability: not using it all up now so that something will remain for the generations of the future. While the reforms needed are many and diverse, there are three areas of change that are most exigent.

Work. Retiring in one's 50s or early 60s is simply neither financially sustainable nor individually desirable when lives stretch into the 80s and 90s. Or, as Sarah Harper said in last year's London Oxford Lecture, a young girl born in the 1990s is likely in our time to see three centuries. Ought we not change how and when we work and retire? Further complicated by those stunningly low birth rates increasingly evident across the globe. Pension systems are drying up because, given today's demographics, there simply aren't enough people to "pay in" for each person "taking out." Fixing social insurance plans is a political minefield, but ignoring the problem will only exacerbate it. But it's not only politicians and policymakers who can create change. Employers also have a vital role to play, as they can create "age-friendly" workplaces and policies to accommodate and promote additional years of productive work-life.

Education. As we try to create longer careers commensurate with longer lives, it will be critical for aging adults to stay relevant and valuable in the workplace. Education must evolve from educating kids to educating adults throughout their lives. MOOCs and "lifelong learning" are just the beginning. Most fundamentally, we need to ask ourselves: what stakeholders and institutions can reform education for adults who must plan for five- and six-decade careers? Colleges and universities can't and shouldn't do it alone. And we need to reimagine the life-long learning process that integrates it throughout our lives.

Health. Health is, so to speak, the least common denominator. Without good health, nothing else is possible. As we consider how to keep active and productive into later life, a new light is shed on health priorities. Good vision, for example, becomes increasingly valuable. And in our era ought not be automatically assumed a part of aging. Healthy skin and pre-cancer treatments open new possibilities for prolonged engagement. And Alzheimer's -- perhaps the greatest challenge of them all -- must be solved. Cases of Alzheimer's are going to double every 20 years, and the $604 billion that Alzheimer's now consumes will seem quaint in a few decades.

These three priority areas are, of course, far from exhaustive, and there remains considerable work to be done in other areas of society. But the basic issue here is simple. It is, as the World Health Organization's Director General Margaret Chan has said, it is time to "re-imagine how we live" so we can create "sustainable aging."