What does society and the country need when the "walker" generation outnumbers the "stroller" crowd?
With aging baby boomers outpacing new births, a solution to this dilemma may require an intergenerational focus, according to Robert H. Binstock, Ph.D., professor of aging, health and society at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He is among the country's leading scholars in the field of aging selected by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to participate in a newly created inter-disciplinary research group called the Aging Society Network to tackle these national issues.
Chaired by Dr. John Rowe, professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and former CEO of Aetna, the 12-member network received a three-year, $3.9 million MacArthur Foundation grant to design solutions in three focus areas:
Binstock sees his new team role with the network as contributing to the understanding of intergenerational relations. "It's not about old people. It's about the implications for society during this big demographic change," he said.
Binstock will contribute not only his perspective of decades of research on aging but his perspective on challenges facing this rapidly growing population group. The longtime university faculty member in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics brings an interdisciplinary breadth to aging issues through his secondary appointments in bioethics, medicine, political science, sociology and the nursing.
The Network's members represent a wide range of disciplines, including gerontology, psychology and health behavior, macroeconomics and public policy, social epidemiology, cognitive neuroscience, demography, and aging policy.
Binstock has made contributions to the field of aging as a former president of the Gerontological Society of America, director of a White House Task Force on Older Americans, and chair and member of a number of advisory panels to the United States government, state and local governments and foundation.
He has published some 300 articles, book chapters, monographs and books, among which are Aging Nation: the Economics and Politics of Growing Older in America (2008), six editions of the Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences and The Fountain of Youth: Cultural, Scientific and Ethical Perspectives on a Biomedical Goal (2004).
Members of the research network are from such universities and institutions as Harvard University; University of Mannheim, Germany; The University of Chicago; Stanford University; Columbia University; University of Michigan; European University Institute, Florence, Italy; University of Illinois at Chicago; and AARP.
In the middle of the next decade, the United States will become an aging society, one feature of which is that those over age 60 will outnumber those under age 15. Although the nation will become increasingly gray in subsequent decades, we are not well prepared to deal with the myriad consequences of this impending reality.
"By 2050, American society may well have more walkers than strollers," said MacArthur Vice President Julia Stasch, who announced the Network in remarks at The Gerontological Society of America's annual scientific meeting on November 21, in Washington, DC.
Stasch added, "This new research network will address the broad social implications of this uncharted demographic territory, examining questions like: how can a large, longer-living, elderly population maintain its productivity and contribute to its well-being – and society's? How will it change our economy, our culture, our politics? Over time, will America look better, worse, or just different? And how can public policies— in immigration, work force development, health care, and others—and reform of our civic institutions affect our future in a positive direction?"
In the 1990s, Rowe chaired MacArthur's Network on Successful Aging, which found that most of the factors that predict successful aging are not solely genetic but at least equally related to lifestyle. The Network published a best-selling book, Successful Aging.
"Much prior work in this area has focused on the economic implications of the looming demographic transition, including the increasing burden of entitlements," said Rowe.
He added, "The new Network will supplement these efforts by exploring the substantial opportunities that may be derived by harnessing the wisdom and energy of the elderly in new organizations and arrangements that provide them with meaningful roles and yield economic, social, behavioral, and health benefits for them and other generations."
Early next year, the Network will present new U.S. population and mortality projections based on emerging evidence and will compare these to current government forecasts. The projections will forecast mortality under scenarios that take account of advances in bio-gerontology with its life-extending potential and the effects of unhealthy life conditions. Such projections have major implications for the development of social, economic, and health policy.
Drawing on the collective expertise of its members, the Network will examine the potential benefits of remodeling the distribution of key activities, including education, work and leisure, across the life course.
The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society. More information is available online.
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