PROJECT M
Q&A

Ursula Staudinger

Robert N. Butler Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and founding director of the Robert N. Butler Aging Center, Columbia University. A life span psychologist and internationally acknowledged aging researcher.

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Ursula Staudinger

Robert N. Butler Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and founding director of the Robert N. Butler Aging Center, Columbia University. A life span psychologist and internationally acknowledged aging researcher.

You dislike the term “aging society.” Why?

It is incorrect because it is not society that is aging but the population. What a society does with the demographic changes going on in the population composition is up to society. A society with an aging population can be a useful and innovative society if handled well.

In what way then should the phenomenon we are seeing be described?

It is a society of longer lives. We have developed into a society that facilitates and enables longer, healthier and more active lives for more and more of us. By calling it a society of longer lives, it highlights that there needs to be a transition. Today, once you reach age 60 you have on average another 20 years to live.

How will societies have to restructure and adapt?

Our societies are not yet prepared to make best use of that last phase in life, so it starts with health, it concerns the labor market and it matters to the education system. These are three crucial pillars of societies and so it is a Herculean challenge to transform. We need to realize that today we live 30 years longer than 100 years ago and adjust these pillars accordingly.

Is there a country handling this well?

There is no perfect country, but the Scandinavians have done a great job in balancing work and family. Primarily you see it in the labor force participation rate of the 65+. It is amongst the highest in the world and has been for some time. Participation in lifelong learning is also amongst the highest and so, at least in Sweden, is average life expectancy.

Are we actually a Dorian Gray society, prizing youth and beauty, which blinds us to the abilities of older citizens?

We certainly haven’t paid as much attention to building strong images of mid- and later life as we have to idolizing young adulthood. Since 2000, there has been a gradual change driven by the graying of the baby boomers. Their sheer numbers mean advertising has changed. Daily, one is confronted with more and more mid-life people. Yes, they are beautified, but it is diversifying what we idolize. As a society of longer lives, we need to put a limelight on the strengths and weaknesses of each phase in life.

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