The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Two converging forces – global ageing and technological innovation – are shaping the life of tomorrow. The possible interactions between the two that either conflict with or complement each other depend upon the social consensus and the policy foundations that we develop today.
Increasing longevity and decreasing fertility are transforming the age structures of nations and regions around the world. Traditional age structures include more younger people than older adults in a population. That was yesterday’s demographic reality. OECD countries are the first to experience demographic transition, where the fastest growing part of their populations are people over 60 years old. What’s more, OECD nations have experienced steeply rising life expectancy and rapidly declining fertility rates. For example, France gained nearly 12 years of life expectancy between 1960 and 2020. In contrast, fertility rates in OECD countries have fallen between 1.3 and 1.9 children per female, which is well below the 2.1 births necessary to maintain a stable population. Over the last six decades, the proportion of people over the age of 60 in OECD nations has nearly doubled.
The World Health Organization reports that today there are more people over the age of 60 years than children under the age of five.
While population ageing is often thought to be a characteristic of highly affluent countries, middle- and low-income nations are now undergoing the same demographic transition. Moreover, these nations are ageing at a far faster rate than high-income economies. The World Health Organization reports that today there are more people over the age of 60 years than children under the age of five. Forecasts indicate that by 2050 two-thirds of people over the age of 60 years will live in low and middle-income nations.
Also on the Forum Network: The Importance of Designing Technology for an Aging Population by Lawrence Kosick, President & Co-Founder, GetSetUp
As the world's population continues to age, it becomes increasingly important to design technology that meets the needs and abilities of older adults. By designing technology that is accessible, user-friendly and affordable, we can bridge the digital divide and help older adults stay independent, explains Lawrence Kosick.
Technological advances in sanitation, nutrition, healthcare, and medicine have been integral to achieving increased longevity. As a result, technological innovation is now critical to translating living longer into living better.
Revolutions in sensor technology, computing power, AI, and related information and communications technologies (ICT) will enable innovative services to change how older people live, work, learn, play, and receive care. The power of these tools has also positioned older adults to be at the leading edge of a tech-enabled lifestyle that younger digirati have yet to experience. Despite the promise of these systems, there are trade-offs. Consider the following questions that individuals, families, and societies will face as ageing and new technology converge.
Retirement Choice versus Extended Work - Augmented reality can be used to train older workers on the job in modern techniques and processes, keeping them competitive in a fast-evolving multigenerational workforce. Robotics may also reduce worker fatigue and the chance of injury. Extending work life offers many societal benefits, e.g., filling workforce gaps emerging from decreasing populations, and reducing demands on public pension plans. However, technology’s capacity to extend work life may encourage governments to consider raising the retirement age. Such a policy move will require a full and open discussion of today’s social contract of what is and when is retirement. Moreover, it will require reengineering education to support a half-century work life and for employers to develop improved policies to manage a highly diverse and multigenerational workplace. While longer work may be less of an issue for office, and selected service workers, this rethinking of retirement will particularly affect those that perform physical work where retirement is less a choice but a physical reality.
- Safety versus Privacy – Sensor technologies have become more affordable and ubiquitous. Wearables can monitor older adult movement and daily activities. Other sensors might report an incident, such as a fall. Ambient sensing embedded in walls and floors collect data to alert families and first responders of a possible problem. Coupled with AI these systems can identify deviations in normal behaviours, e.g., changes in sleep patterns, possibly indicating a change in health or predicting the increased probability of an incident. While these technologies provide a virtual safety net for older adults, particularly for those living alone, they also pose significant privacy issues. Who collects these data? How are they managed? Who has access to these data? Will these data be used by insurers in underwriting and pricing?
- Care versus Dignity – Families have traditionally been primary caregivers of an ageing loved one. Today, adult children may live far from their ageing parents, or due to decreasing birthrates, there may be no children at all. Technology offers the possibility to care for an older adult from a distance. Appliances, such as a smart refrigerator make it possible to detect not just what food is available but identify if an older person is complying with their prescribed diet plan. Smart toilets may also detect medication adherence, hydration, weight, and nutrition. From the kitchen to the bathroom, technology is making it possible to monitor, manage, and even motivate older adults to do what is believed the best for them. However, despite noble intent such technologies also pose challenges to the dignity of individuals, often in the most intimate of places in their homes.
- High Tech versus High Touch – Technology can now serve as eyes, ears, and even hands to care for ageing loved ones. The pandemic demonstrated that where high touch is not possible, high tech can sometimes fill the void. While particular caregiving tasks may be fulfilled such as ensuring that meals are delivered, medications are taken, and telemedicine visits are made, will the availability of these high-tech solutions evolve to be viewed as an acceptable substitute for human connection?
- Innovation versus Affordability – Technology innovations when first introduced to the marketplace are expensive. True innovation is not simply the capacity to perform a given task, it is also about how to make the benefits of technology widely and equitably available. What are the market strategies and government policies that might evolve to foster innovation while ensuring rapid availability and affordability for all?
Rarely are older adults viewed as early adopters of technology. However, the convergence of global ageing and technology is producing services that are viewed as appropriate for our grandmothers and grandfathers – making them lead adopters of a lifestyle few of us have ever considered for ourselves.
Technology offers new possibilities to rethink how we live in older age. It also poses significant market, policy, and societal questions to determine if all the things that are possible are also desired not just by institutions, or families, but by the people the technology is envisioned to support.
To learn more, check out also the OECD's work on Digital innovation and inclusiveness
And read also the OECD's report Retaining Talent at All Ages