Higher Ed and 'Shock of Gray'

How old will you be in 2050? I will be 81. At 81 I plan to be still working in higher ed, still running, still writing, still teaching, still contributing. What about you?

February 7, 2011

How old will you be in 2050? I will be 81. At 81 I plan to be still working in higher ed, still running, still writing, still teaching, still contributing. What about you?

We are not alone. As Ted Fishman describes in his wonderful new book, Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population and How It Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation, the gifts and challenges of an aging world will define both our individual and our societal narratives over the next 40 years.

Fishman takes us on a tour of what an aging population means to places (cities and whole countries), companies, families, and individuals. He spends time in the Sarasota Florida (where my parents are as I write this), a city that has built its economy on and culture around the idea of active and healthy aging. We learn about Rockford Illinois, and the challenges that older industrial cities face as the economy transitions from manufacturing to service while a population ages in place.

The aging challenges of the U.S., however, seem manageable compared to what is in store for Europe of much of East Asia. Fishman's portrait of Spain, the lowest fertility and longest lived country in Europe, will make you relieved for American fertility (and immigration). By 2050, Japan's population may decrease 25%, with close to 4-in-10 Japanese being 65 or older. The question for China will be if the country can grow rich before it grows too old, as the one child policy has insured that Chinese society will be amongst the most rapidly aging, with over 400 million elderly by 2050.

Fishman investigates the causes and consequences of aging for all these places, as well as delving in to the reasons behind the great increase in lifespans, the declines in fertility, and the science of aging.

I came away from Shock of Gray convinced that we need to think about what an aging American will mean for our institutions of higher learning.

Today, we have about 30 million people between the ages of 18 and 24, and about 40 million people 65 and over (out of a total of 310 million). By 2050, the number of 18 to 24 year olds is expected to grow to about 40 million, but the people 65 and over to almost 90 million (out of about 440 million). This flood of older Americans will be healthier, wealthier, and more engaged than any population in our history.

Are we doing enough to re-design our colleges and universities to make them attractive and relevant to this huge and growing 65+ population?

Can we re-think undergraduate and graduate programs to a system that would be attractive to people looking to challenge their brains, follow their passions, and learn new skills after decades in the paid labor force?

What models do we have of turning our campuses into places where both 70 year olds and 20 year olds can come together to live and learn?

Could people in their 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th decades be our best customers, and our best students, in the years to come?

Who in academia is taking a leadership role in the interplay between an aging society and a changing system of higher education?

Where will you be in 2050?

What are you reading?


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