Is it nothing other than good news that we are getting healthier and healthier and living longer? Yes and no, as the over 65s also have to be supported. There ought to be a simple solution to this: Most people today actually want to continue working even when they get older. But this requires customisation of the working environment and utilisation of the skills provided by the older generation.
People born in the forties – or the "meat mountain" as one Swedish finance minister called this generation – are not keen on sitting around feeding pigeons. They are hiking in the Dolomites, learning French and how to use Photoshop, fulfilling their dreams. "I think there is some truth in the saying that 60 is the new 40. I can say this almost as a joke but the truth is that I still feel like I am 30," says Derek Barker, a 61-year-old CEO for the design and architectural office Haskoll in the UK.
"A senior young person – that's me! We want to look modern, and I think that goes both for clothing as well as furniture and colours," he goes on.
More and more old people believe they have more to offer after they have turned 65. In a study where more than 1,000 people were interviewed, almost eight out of ten people born in the forties believed that they would still be able to work after turning 70. Among those from Generation X (people born between 1961 and 1979) who answered, this figure was even higher. If it turns out that the majority not only are prepared but also want to work as they get older, then this would solve one the most difficult equations faced by the welfare system: How less and less young people can support more and more older people.
"There are various strategies to tackle and solve these challenges but there is none better and more significant than the one where we work more and longer," writes Mårten Blix, secretary and advisor to the Government's Commission on the Future, in a debate article.
The challenge has in any case been getting attention from one person, namely the father of the writer of the article. Hans Blix turned 85 in June and, among other things, he commutes to Abu Dhabi in his role as nuclear power advisor to the United Arab Emirates government. He is a member of Vattenfall's nuclear safety council, chairman of the international committee for the Chernobyl reactor and a columnist for the news magazine Fokus.
Though he may be an extreme case, Hans Blix is not alone.
"We are seeing that the older workforce will work longer in the future. It's about utilising their skills and experience. I think that the experience of the 1940s baby boomer generation provides support to the younger generation, while Generation Y* can convey a sense of being 'cool, connected and on-line' to their older colleagues," says Ian Weddell, commercial manager, Kinnarps UK.
But what has to be done for the older generation to feel in demand and welcome and not like the character Jack Nicholson played in the Hollywood film "About Schmidt" who waits in vain for his replacement to ask for some good advice after his farewell party?
One key factor is likely our view on old people's competence levels. If they are deemed to be a hindrance in allowing a new generation in, then it will be very difficult. If instead the attitude is that different age groups complement each other in a workplace, the future looks bright.
The fact is is that older generations are more and more attractive to recruit. It is not unusual that news anchors in the US are older than 75. Senior advisors command respect with customers. In Germany, there are recruiting platforms such as "Erfahrung Deutschland" and "AgeBroker" providing professional support from older or retired specialists, who are genuinely appreciated for their skills and knowledge. But how we motivate older people to go on working is also a matter of practical and concrete aspects.
Inclusive design. Better lighting. Ergonomic furniture. Access to hearing aids.
"For the first time, we have four generations in the workplace and this means that everyone must thrive and find their own individual ways of working. It is important to remember that a 70 year old and a 20 year old have completely different needs in the workplace," says Henrik Axell, Concept Developer of Kinnarps' Activity Based Working Environment.
We should not forget that the ambition to keep older people in work for longer is not a view shared by all professions, for various reasons. The will and opportunities to having an active professional career beyond 70 is more likely greater for an architect than a lathe operator. But in line with our progression toward a Thought Economy, where heavy physical work is often carried out by machines and intelligence is more important than muscle, there will be an increase in the number of jobs that can be carried out by older people.
If in this type of world we combine the older generation's experience with the younger generation's ability to think outside the box, then the opportunities for better results should increase.
"I believe that we have a fascinating time ahead of us. There will be more silver-haired people who are healthier than in the previous generation. "For many of them, including myself, work is a lifestyle and I will never want to retire," says Martin Cook, Head of the Interior and Graphic Design Group at BDP, in the UK.
Did You Know That…
…people who are 50 today will live five years longer than the previous generation.
…the proportion of people in the EU of working age (15-64) will be halved by 2060.
…that in a study about Generation Y*, 76% of those questioned wanted mentors.
*The definition of which age groups belong to Generation Y varies, but one distinction, among other, is that mobile telephones and personal computers have been present almost their entire lives, and that the internet has been commonplace since they were young.