Ageing: Looming crisis or booming opportunity?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Arathi Sethumadhavan, Project Fellow, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, World Economic Forum, Microsoft & Megan Saunders, Vice President, Microsoft Connected Care


  • There will be a shift in the global ageing population from 7% today to 20% in the next few decades. This growth will be one of the greatest social, economic, and political transformations of our time. It will force changes in systems, have impact on families, and will require new solutions.
  • Though older adults are a reigning economic segment, the attitudes and stereotypes about ageing still persist and market innovation to meet their needs is lagging behind.
  • Collaboration among policy-makers, civil society, academia, and the private-sector is crucial to creating holistic solutions that promote the safety, autonomy, well-being, and dignity of older adults.

Many societies have outdated beliefs about ageing. Older adults are often described as frail, as “challenges” to be addressed, and they are discriminated against, particularly in the workplace, where their experience and knowledge should count.

While we celebrate the birth and growth of children and their early adulthood, we fail to respect those with wisdom and important stories to pass down to younger generations. Marketing companies tend to focus on millennials and Gen Z, but one of the largest economic segments, the baby boomers, are largely forgotten.

According to a recent survey, baby boomers in the US are projected to have 70% of disposable income over the next five years yet less than 10% of advertising efforts are directed towards them. As they begin to retire and continue to do so over the next several decades, there is untapped opportunity in the realm of retirement services.

Rethinking stereotypical beliefs about ageing and changing the discourse around older adults will positively transform society into one where everyone can age with purpose.

Image: United Nations

The challenges of getting older

By 2050, the number of adults over the age of 65 globally will double, reaching a staggering 1.6 billion, with the largest growth in the developing world. This growth will be one of the greatest social, economic, and political transformations of our time, that will impact existing healthcare, government and social systems, that today are largely not inclusive of the ageing population or built to the scale needed to support it.

But we can begin to make investments in our support systems (enabled and scaled by technology) that encompass a coordinated response from governments, society, academia, and the private sector.

A precursor to investing in innovative solutions will be to acknowledge the needs of older adults and identify their caregiving challenges. These are the issues that will inform the solutions agenda.

Ageing in place

Ageing in place refers to the desire to be independent in a residence of one’s choice and participate in the community. Meaningful social contact and well-being are essential components of ageing in place. Instead of segregating people into communities based on age (like retirement communities), intergenerational living can provide companionship and purpose for older adults.

Independent mobility

Driving cessation is associated with increased depressive symptoms and a variety of other health consequences. Therefore, meeting the mobility needs of the older population is crucial to minimizing the adverse impacts on their health and well-being.

Health challenges

The health challenges faced by older adults undermine the potential opportunities of increased longevity. Unfortunately, older adults are disproportionately affected by chronic ailments, with 80% of seniors in the US having at least one chronic disease and 70% having at least two. Heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes are among the most common.

Approximately 47.5 million people worldwide have dementia—a number that is predicted to nearly triple by 2050.

Social engagement

Social inclusion or active engagement in society via a social network (whether through employment, volunteering, childcare, learning or teaching) has a positive impact on mortality, well-being, and life satisfaction. In fact, the fallout from social isolation and loneliness is estimated to cost US Medicare $6.7 billion per year.

Financial health and reskilling

A significant number of low- and medium-income seniors experience financial challenges that require them to extend their retirement plan. With increased longevity, even those individuals who have the means to retire want to stay in the workforce longer but can face age discrimination, despite the fact that an intergenerational workforce that embraces mentoring and reverse mentoring can spark innovation and organizational success.

Diversity in abilities

It is important to acknowledge that older adults are a heterogeneous group of individuals, with varying physical, sensory, cognitive, and sensory abilities. Contrary to popular belief, there is not always a clear relationship between chronological age and health status.

In fact, a significant proportion of older Americans are healthy across a broad age range, from 51-54, 55-59 all the way to those aged 85+. There are also variations in educational levels and technological experience among older adults.

Ageing with disability

While disability in the older population can arise as a result of age-related declines in sensory, mobility, and cognitive functions, individuals can also experience disability as a result of pre-existing impairments. In addition to supporting older adults with a range of abilities, it is also important to support those with long-term impairments. For example, someone who was born blind and relied on auditory cues to interact with a system may experience age-related decline in hearing and may not be able to rely solely on auditory information anymore.

Lack of professional caregivers

Globally, health and social care systems are struggling to meet the needs of older adults. For example, a recent longitudinal study conducted in the United Kingdom revealed that more than 50% of older adults who needed assistance with daily activities get no support. There is a palpable need for a sustainable social care system with enough care workers to manage an ageing population in several nations across the globe including Germany, India, Japan and the United States.

Family caregiver burden

The growth in the population of older adults coupled with the desire to age in place and the shortage of professional care providers is requiring families and friends to fill the gaps.

In the US, one in five adults are caregivers. Coordinating the care across the care continuum, which disproportionality effects women, includes balancing healthcare decisions, care plan adherence, and medications. General tasks associated with the day-to-day care for a loved one is stressful and expensive.

As a result, family caregivers suffer from cognitive overload, balance of time and especially relationship loss as they shift from the role of daughter, son or spouse to a caregiver role. In fact, family caregivers suffer a significantly higher rate of depression. Our research also indicates that family caregiving represents $1.2 trillion in economic loss in the US alone. Losses comprise unpaid labour, low business productivity, lost salaries, and increased medical costs totaling almost $100 billion (partly resulting from high rates of caregiver depression).

A multistakeholder approach to ageing

Catering to the needs of an ageing population is a largely untapped opportunity, but the space is fragmented. This presents a challenge, but also a space for a broader ecosystem to grow, where brand, trust and reliability from a multistakeholder base are critical for scaling up innovation.

To truly bring the holistic services needed to market, device makers, developers, enterprises such as retirement homes and insurance companies, civil society, policy-makers, and academia should come together to develop a unified platform that includes Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. More importantly, older adults must be at the centre of this change, where their values and perspectives are included in the solutions.

Technology trends and predictions

Technology has the potential to enhance individual lives, facilitate caregiving, and improve the delivery of services. Contrary to popular belief, more seniors have embraced digital technologies than ever before, with perceived benefits and usability driving adoption. Specific areas of technology that are being explored to meet the needs of older adults include:

  • Telemedicine
  • Tablets for communication and entertainment
  • “Smart” platforms that integrate electronic medical records (EMRs) and electronic health records with AI and analytics
  • Wearables
  • Voice, touch, motion, and other assistive technologies
  • Connected IoT devices and sensors
  • Technologies for safety (monitoring and alert devices)
  • Sensory aids (e.g., hearing devices)
  • Gig economy services (e.g., meal delivery)
  • Self-driving cars
  • Robots

Microsoft is one of the organizations investing in this space. For example, Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare helps manage health data at scale by providing personalized care, transforming data into patient insights, enabling virtual care and care team collaboration, optimizing treatment by combining IoT and analytics, and promoting data interoperability.

Microsoft Azure Kinect and Teams is being used for rehabilitation at homes, allowing patients and therapists to communicate with each other.

These are meeting some aspects of the challenge – but there is a much broader opportunity across different sectors that will require a coordinated approach to succeed at scale.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to combat Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s Diesease, a result of rapid ageing that causes dementia, is a growing concern. Dementia, the seventh leading cause of death worldwide, cost the world $1.25 trillion in 2018, and affected about 50 million people in 2019. Without major breakthroughs, the number of people affected will triple by 2050, to 152 million.

To catalyse the fight against Alzheimer’s, the World Economic Forum is partnering with the Global CEO Initiative (CEOi) to form a coalition of public and private stakeholders – including pharmaceutical manufacturers, biotech companies, governments, international organizations, foundations and research agencies.

The initiative aims to advance pre-clinical research to advance the understanding of the disease, attract more capital by lowering the risks to investment in biomarkers, develop standing clinical trial platforms, and advance healthcare system readiness in the fields of detection, diagnosis, infrastructure and access.

The economic impact of ageing will be massive, but the burden on individuals and their families and the healthcare system itself will be even larger. There is a present opportunity to help people and businesses achieve more.

With the retirement industry in the US targeted somewhere in the hundreds of billions, it is large today and set to grow over the next decade. A further 98 countries are expected to have an even higher proportion of people aged 65-plus than the US by 2050. This is not only a market that is poised for monetization – but investment into it is essential to the sustainability and dignity of communities, worldwide.

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