Even in light of an all-consuming pandemic, there are some mega-trends that continue their powerful and profound impact on global society. One such trend is global aging, which has led to a reimagining and a reframing of the relationship between age and health, economic, and social policies. Now, one of the more valued ideas on global aging — to keep people active, engaged, and working well past 20th century retirement and “old age” norms — offers a critical opportunity to jumpstart economic recovery during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite the scale of this opportunity, public discussion about Covid-19 has often relied on and reinforced outdated stereotypes about older adults: that every person over 60 is unhealthy, vulnerable, and out of the workforce. Not only are these assumptions false, they threaten to actively undermine societies’ responses to and recovery from Covid-19. Sustaining financial and physical well-being during the Covid-19 outbreak will require empowering this huge population of workers and consumers to continue contributing, spending, and saving. The Silver Economy is alive, well, and still growing as increasing numbers of older adults buy, play, learn, and work online.
For Covid-19 economic recovery, it is especially necessary to recognize how a multi-generational workforce and workplace can drive individual prosperity and widespread economic growth — before, during, and after the pandemic. This is intimately linked to the idea of a multi-generational society, where the roles needed in health and social care, education, and economics are structured differently. Moreover, if the basic proposition is that active life — including work — beyond one’s 60s is a pre-condition for healthier aging, itself bending the curve on health spending, why not apply this to the broader-based societal needs of a Covid-19 economic recovery, especially at this most critical and tenuous moment when innovation — including in how we live our lives — is central?
Here are three ideas how older citizens globally can be central to becoming the engines of our economic reopening:
1. Education: It’s increasingly recognized that economic opening in a Covid-19 pandemic is inextricably linked to school opening, since parents, especially of younger children, often struggle to both work and take care of their kids. Yet we persist in outdated models with respect to who teaches and how they do it. This generates widespread challenges, as the number of “teachers” must now expand to cover the number of classes needed to accommodate social distancing, the challenges of remote learning and the hybrid models.
A new, more effective plan would apply a multi-generational innovative approach to tap older adults as teachers — bringing experience, knowledge, and skills that can be readily adopted and adapted to these needs. The young-old, 55–75, who also tend to be healthier, less compromised, and looking for continued activity (read work), can be effective teaching both in classrooms and online. They could also partner with the millions of recent college grads looking for their first jobs to work as teacher teams. The older adults could help teach the younger grads in areas both will teach the youth. I’d bet that millions of grandparents around the planet, even if at greater risk will never-the-less happily volunteer, as they will want to “give back,” even with risks understood.
Let all of us make our own decisions about risk, but in ways that will respect the basic new tenets of public health and work — mask-wearing, social distancing, and reduction of large gatherings. The idea of a fully engaged multi-generational society is what so many had already been thinking as the way to reimagine aging and its relationship to economic growth. This is even more valuable, if we are to successfully manage the public health aspects of Covid-19 and economic activity.
2. Caregiving: As Covid-19 dramatically increases the need for childcare and eldercare, healthy older adults can help to address these needs at both ends. With the proper public health procedures, older adults can safely and effectively work as professional caregivers, without compromising the health of either caregiver or care recipient. Indeed, this approach is actually essential to protecting well-being, as it can help to ensure proper care for age-related chronic conditions, which are not going to subside during the pandemic.
Innovative leaders in home care, like Home Instead Senior Care, have already developed advanced protocols and trainings to mitigate the risk of Covid-19. Together with tools for remote care, this can enable people with chronic conditions to continue receiving the care they need, while also offering job opportunities for older adults.
3. Entrepreneurship: Embracing silver entrepreneurship as a principal engine of 21st-century growth is becoming even more important during the pandemic. Many businesses and services have had to move online, almost overnight, indicating the huge entrepreneurship opportunities for older adults working from any location. By empowering older entrepreneurs, societies and governments can unleash a wave of new, digitally enabled businesses that spark economic recovery and continue driving prosperity even after the pandemic.
This will feed on a trend that existed even before Covid-19. Contrary to the myth of the whiz-kid founder, older adults actually start businesses at higher rates than younger adults, and these businesses are more likely to be successful. Older adults not only have more experience and larger networks — essential ingredients for startup success — they also enjoy unmatched knowledge about a huge consumer base: other older adults. During Covid-19, older entrepreneurs can leverage these advantages to launch businesses that create new jobs and effectively serve older consumers’ preferences and needs.
Teachers, caregivers, and entrepreneurs are essential in every society. At a time of massive economic upheaval, we can’t afford to exclude older adults from these critical roles. Instead, businesses, policymakers, and societies should empower older adults to enter these jobs and careers, contribute to their communities, and realize their own financial and health benefits. The win-win-win will be the spark for successful economic reopening as we continue to respect the core public health elements now an organic part of everyday life.