03/09/2009 - 00:00

A challenge for the ages

03/09/2009 - 00:00


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An ageing population presents political, social and scientific challenges.

GLOBALISATION may be a new word in our modern lexicon, but it is not a new concept.

Conquerors and colonists have for centuries used force and economic might to subvert their neighbours, and globalise their known worlds.

In 2009, our modern version of globalisation is a mixture of things - planet-wide connectivity, interdependent economies between nations, global climate vulnerability, and lately, the worldwide ageing of the human race.

This wholesale ageing is a new experience for the inhabitants of our planet, irrevocably affecting all peoples, all societies.

Presently happening in Japan, North America, Europe and Australasia, then in a decade or two, China, Indonesia, India and other densely populated countries - all will be enveloped by this massive demographic shift.

In Australia, we will experience the impact on several fronts - economic, political, and social. There will undoubtedly be many shifts in response - in business, in government systems, in health and care services, housing and accommodation, transport, and many others.

By mid century, only 40 years away, one in four of us will be old, whereas presently it is one in nine. The so-called baby boomer cohort is not only large in number, but will also be living much longer than any before them.

The swelling of these ranks has a major reciprocal effect on the size of the working age cohort. Australia has already had a taste of workforce shortages, of both labour and skills. Although the recent global financial crisis has brought some respite, this is only a pause, before the shrinking of the workforce continues.

This is a very serious matter and will need all the human ingenuity we can muster to find ways through.

Scenarios may well include a significantly slowed economy, abolition of the traditional distinction between 'work' and 'retirement', redesign of work and skills models in many professional areas, widespread use of substitution, and much greater use of integrated technology.

Education will be focused on equipping young people with capacity for flexibility and multiskilling, for jobs we, in 2009, cannot foresee.

Health and care service systems will have to concentrate hard on two important areas that are not served well enough now - disease prevention, and sustaining people's independence.

We are very good at tackling acute conditions, not so good at preventing them. We are good at assessing people's disabilities, assigning them to dependence, rather than restoring function, capitalising on abilities, and encouraging confidence and independence.

Ours is the era of chronic disease. There are three enormous modern epidemics coming - the three 'giants' of diabetes, depression and dementia.

The systems we know today will stagger under their burden if we don't change our approach and radically change our modus operandi.

The political scenario will surely be different, having shifted to respond to the increasing, and by then substantial, voice of the quarter of the population voting with new agendas.

Business will be constantly evolving to respond to this increasing customer segment with different needs and desires, different expectations, and different demands.

Society will have shifted in its attitudes, hopefully to a state in which the wisdom and experience of older people is cherished and used - a society restored to respect for elderhood and the relationships between three, four, or even five generations living at the same time.

As we, the 'developed' world, go through our own ageing transition, our populous neighbours will be beginning to cope with theirs. Perhaps there is room for us to help.

Globalisation by ageing - this is baby boom, not gloom and doom. This is a triumph for the human race, the result of much medical and scientific advance.

It's an exciting world that awaits us - look at it with enthusiasm and optimism - we have a little time to plan well, change what has to be changed, grow the leaders we need.

Look at it with confidence, it is the future for every single one of us, and we can shape it for success.

n Penny Flett is CEO of the Brightwater Care Group (Inc)


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