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The Author Speaks

What an Older World Means

Interview with Ted C. Fishman, author of "Shock of Gray"

It's a brave, old world — and the ramifications are mind-boggling.

Our lives are changing rapidly as a result of mankind's greatest gift to itself, the engineering of longer life spans, according to veteran journalist Ted C. Fishman in the thought-provoking Shock of Gray. As huge numbers of people age, they need services, products, care and time specifically targeted to their needs. Those needs impact the rest of the population, as the burden of physical, emotional and mental care of the older age group falls to everybody else in one way or another. Affected are families, jobs, livelihoods, neighborhoods and more.

In this country, the numbers are significant. In 2010, America's population of people between ages 75 and 85 reached 17 million, says Fishman, citing statistics from the U.S. National Institute on Aging. But that's a mere blip compared to what's coming down the pike. Forty years from now, by the year 2050, America's population of the very old will hit 30 million. If our current population remained steady, that would be a tenth of the people in the country.

If that isn't startling enough, the institute also predicts that by that same year, there will be 2.5 million people over the age of 100. "Every age group over 65 will grow much faster than the general population," Fishman says, "but the numbers of the oldest-old, people over 85, will proportionately grow most." In the more developed countries, the estimated number of people 100 and over has doubled every decade since 1950, according to "Why Population Aging Matters: A Global Perspective," a National Institute on Aging report.

Fishman has interviewed gerontologists, health care officials, economists, small-business owners and many other experts to present a vivid picture of the implications of an older world. In America, the new dynamic means more wrinkles and more worries, more fresh challenges and more competition globally — and worrisome trends in the workplace. Fishman spoke with the AARP Bulletin about his new book and his findings — and about where we're headed.

(Read an excerpt from Shock of Gray.)

Q. We shouldn't be surprised by the numbers you're citing — after all, we knew this was coming — and yet we are. Why?

A. Think about what defined America and the world just 10 or 20 years ago. It was Silicon Valley. The youthful entrepreneurs were going to deliver us. They were going to be the dominant feature of our cultural landscape. And then the older CEOs bought all of these tech companies that went belly up. The truth is, it is just really hard for people to plan for their old age. They can certainly plan for retirement. But they don't necessarily have a clear mental vision of themselves in old age.

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Q. Why not?

A. For most of us, our idea of our older selves stops somewhere around the early 80s. People just don't imagine themselves as 90-year-olds or 102-year-olds. It's alien territory to most. There haven't been many others to compare ourselves to, until fairly recently.

Q. You say that globally, by the year 2040, "the population of demented will climb to 81 million." That's a huge number.

A. It's very disproportionate to population growth. The statistics that apply to old age are going up geometrically, at an accelerated rate. The dementia figure to me was sobering for a lot of reasons. It's a huge burden of misery that the world will have to carry.

It also affects the rest of the population and how we function as a workforce. Among other things, communities turn really aggressively to making their hospitals their most vital employer.

Q. That seems to make sense.

A. And their citizens demand it, their local businesses want it, and it's the one place where they can draw youthful money to their aging community. If a community is withering because industries have moved out, it can import American money into it by serving an older population.

Q. You got the idea for this book when in China. How did that happen?

A. I was impressed by the fabulous, ever-growing, dynamic cities of youth — Beijing, Shanghai, many others. They seemed to be attracting an unremitting flow of young people from the countryside. The executives from foreign companies were so happy to have all these young workers toiling away in their businesses. They'd say, "It's not like back home, where everybody's fat, and they smoke, and they're so expensive."

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