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Interview: Expert Calls for New Aging Policy


Dr. Alan Walker

Dr. Alan Walker

The life expectancy of Canadians continues to rise. Centenarians, once rarer than hens’ teeth, now number over 4,600 in Canada.

In the United Kingdom, there are now more people aged 65 and over than children under 16. That’s the first time in the country’s history.

Dr. Alan Walker is a professor of social policy and social gerontology at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. The director of the New Dynamics in Ageing Program, Walker has called on individuals and governments to think of old age in a new way – as a time of opportunities.

According to Walker: “A well-chosen aging policy would improve the education, health and wealth of society as a whole.”

AHB reached Dr. Walker at the University of Sheffield.

Ruth Dempsey: You talk about how we tend to view of old age as “passive, dependent and discriminatory.” How so?

Alan Walker: I mean that large numbers of older people are effectively excluded from mainstream society. This starts for some in their 50s as they are regarded by employers as “too old” or “too set in their ways.” If they lose their jobs they often face a harsh, discriminatory labour market. The present global recession will only make this worse.

In retirement, older people are regarded as unproductive even though they may make huge contributions as grandparents or volunteers. Of course, the assumption – still dominant in Europe – that people should retire at fixed ages is discriminatory. It is assumed that older people should no longer be economically active.

Other, non-economic contributions are discounted. In the media, older people tend to be invisible or presented in stereotypical terms as passive or feisty. And politically, they are taken for granted by politicians, who wrongly assume their votes are in whichever bag they have always been.

RD: You emphasize the need to see old age in new ways, but first, we must stop believing the baby boomers will change things . . .

AW: Media pundits and some policy commentators in the United Kingdom put great store by the potential of the 60s generations to transform old age. This is pure speculation that ignores the impact of the ageing process and later life frailty. It also ignores those in old age now, and the measures needed to help them to age actively and rewardingly.

RD: We often hear numbers can change things. You argue grey power is a myth. How so?

AW: I think “grey power” is over-hyped.

Certainly, in Europe there is very little evidence of older people exerting any significant electoral impact despite their large numbers and their greater propensity to vote than younger people.

In fact, the idea that older people would vote as a block is itself an example of ageism. Why would it be assumed that older people would be any less divided than younger people along social class, race, gender, and political or other lines? Of course they are not, nor is there any indication of age interest voting patterns.

Even in the United States, which has a highly institutionalized interest group polity there is no evidence of older people voting as a block. In the last presidential election, 51 per cent of those aged 60 and over voted for the Republican candidate compared with 47 per cent of all voters – a marginal indication of conservative leanings. The earlier case of Ronald Reagan shows that an arch-conservative with plans to cut Social Security can be elected and re-elected president in the United States.

Moreover, the political power of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) has been exaggerated. True, it exerts some influence in the American legislative process but this is limited. It has not been able to swing votes in a general election.

RD: Media frequently describe demographic aging in apocalyptic terms: “the rising tide of dependency, “intergenerational war,” “boomer tsunami.” What’s wrong with this?

AW: This is a problem for three main reasons. First, it deflects attention away from real policy issues that need serious attention and induces a lazy panic response. Second, it wrongly overlooks the potential for preventing many of the adverse consequences of population aging such as the growing costs of pensions and long term care. And finally, it reflects and underscores the ageist stereotype of older people as a “burden” on society.

RD: You would like to see a change in our whole approach to aging. You advocate equality – a society for all ages. What would this look like?

AW: This is easy enough to state but achieving it is quite another thing. Simply put, a society for all ages would mean no one would be disadvantaged by their age.

The lifelong aging process would have a high public profile. So, young people would be taught about the aging journey and the damaging consequences of ageism. They would realize the need for flexible work skills and learn to identify major health risks.

In middle age, people would update their skills, take preventative health measures and plan for the later years.

Most older adults would be able to decide on key aspects of their lives, such as housing options, retirement and full or part-time working. Advanced old age services would maximize well-being and be individually customized and available in people’s homes.

On the work front, job prospects for all ages would be fostered by the universal availability of lifelong education and training. Older adults would be able to work for as long as they could perform at the required standard. Workplaces would be adapted ergonomically to support older workers and reduce stress and injury. Voluntary work would be valorized and a decent social pension would help eradicate poverty. In short, a society for all ages, without discrimination.

RD: The British government is currently working on an aging strategy. What are you hoping for?

AW: I would like to see the government start to deliver on a society for all ages. Aging is one of three grand challenges facing the world today, along with global warming and the financial crisis. It’s going to take a massive political effort to transform it into a positive outcome for everyone.