Capitalizing on the Value of the Elderly in Modern Society

As modern societies develop, become richer, and life expectancies increase, the ratio between the elderly, non-working population and younger, industrious population shifts towards unsustainability. In the United States in 2010, for every 100 working-age adults there are 22 non-working elderly. By 2030 there will be 37 non-working for every 100 working age adults. (from census) The increased dependency ratio on the 20-65 age group will slow economic growth and add burden to already strained government support programs.

What seems so backwards is that instead of providing value and filling important roles in society, much of the 65+ age group is filed away in retirement homes. As we age we often become less effective at the kind of social roles that modern society has chosen to put value on like manual labor and creative ingenuity.

What I suggest is that there are in fact important social roles in which the elderly populations can be very effective, but are not currently taking up in a systematic way.

Many grandparents are already playing a small role in the upbringing of grandchildren, but cultural, physical, and economic factors are preventing the full potential for that role to be reached. For every 100 working age adults there are 45 children who must be supported. Why are there so many child care facilities while there are so many able-minded elderly with nothing to do? One burdensome population can actually lessen the burden of the other.

Jared Diamond just gave an eye-opening TED talk comparing the value of elderly populations between traditional, tribal societies and modern westernized societies. Elderly were valued for their wisdom, leadership, craftsmanship, and child rearing abilities, freeing younger populations to hunt and fill other physically intensive roles. Elderly often lived among all ranges of age groups and could provide value wherever able. Responsibilities were shared among a community and not just a single immediately family. Though we live in a very different world now, we would be smart to learn something from historical social structures and see where we may institute programs to make better use of the human resource we collectively share.

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