Embrace the golden age

There will be two billion over-60s by 2050. They can – and must – become a crucial part of the workforce, writes Karina Robinson

Dimmed lights are reflected on the heated seawater in the indoor pool, while New Age music wafts across the cavernous room. Aged bodies advance in slow motion from jet to jet, allowing each one to massage a different part of their arthritic limbs, while chatting with each other and Nikos, the Greek God of a lifeguard.

This vision of the future, courtesy of a thalassotherapy spa holiday near Athens, shocked me into an awareness of how the population of the world’s major economies is ageing, notably in Europe, Japan, China and the US. And what a wealth of opportunities could arise out of it.

People over 60 are set to become the world’s fastest-growing cohort. By 2050 there will be two billion of them. Their participation in the workforce will be crucial to make up for fewer working-age adults. For this to happen, more flexibility will be needed in the world of work, whose practices too often continue to be hidebound by tradition.

Adapting the tools of work is also vital. Sixteen-year-old students at a recent workshop at ADA, the National College for Digital Skills in London, experimented with taping three of their fingers together and wearing dark glasses while trying to use a normal keyboard. The simulation of old-age travails will undoubtedly lead to breakthroughs in workable technology.

Blurring science fiction and reality, Bristol-based Open Bionics creates 3D-printed robotic hands for amputees, mainly children. One child asked them for a pocket to store his iPhone on his bionic arm. In a few years, one can visualize an older person who has lost the use of their arms due to, say, Parkinson’s, asking for an app to be downloaded into their arm that could call their carers when they had a severe fall.

Later that day at the spa, gently perspiring in a sticky seaweed wrap, I reflected that in 500 BC, Greek physician Hippocrates came up with a revolutionary focus on preventing sickness instead of simply treating disease. The older people at the spa (and those of us who meander in the middle-age range) were doing just that. Monitoring our health is becoming normal through Fitbit and other wearable devices, while exciting apps are being developed
that can tell when a depressive episode is about to happen, or when a heartbeat is out of sync – as seen in the Flying Health incubator in Germany.

Robots will undoubtedly help with old age. Yet the warmth of human interaction is invaluable. Penelope, one of the personal trainers at the spa – and the living image of a koure (temple maiden) – led a keep-fit class in the pool, and her smile, surely, encouraged us more than any robotic voice could. In any case, the human/tech interface is emerging as the most productive piece of the puzzle in our new world. Take Vida, a startup funded by Hambro Perks that aims to disrupt the carer market. The app lets customers book carefully vetted carers and includes capabilities like setting the tasks they are to accomplish. It sees itself as the Uber of carers.

Mental stimulation is essential both to quality of life and to being a productive member of society. Tech devices will help deal with – and possibly reverse – the decline in our mental capacity as we age. But nothing can be as stimulating to our brains (and souls) as using our professional capabilities to help society. This can be seen through the work of United Nations Volunteers. Assignments can range from advising on dam building, to editing a newspaper in Haiti, or changing laws in Vietnam. In fact, the Odyssean saga of Greek debt forgiveness/restructuring/bailout, which dominated the local papers during our stay, would assuredly benefit from the advice of old hands who dealt with the Latin America or Asian debt crises.

To the young out there: embrace the older generation for their wisdom and experience. To the middle-aged and old: fear not advancing age, but grasp it with the strength of Hercules. 

— Karina Robinson is chief executive of Robinson Hambro