We're facing a demographic time bomb
Outside of Japan, Finland has a population that’s aging faster than any industrialized country, thanks to a baby boom that started a little bit earlier, after the Winter War with Russia that ended in 1940. It’s a portent of things to come for other European and North American countries, as one European official notes in the Financial Times, which is behind a paywall:
“If I want to get really depressed, I think about what we’re not talking about at all — the ticking demographic time-bomb.”
Finland is ahead of the game and has been trying to develop new forms of housing and care but “In European terms we have been preparing early but only a little has been done,” says Marja Vaarama, a professor of social work at the University of Eastern Finland.
Beyond the pure politics and economics, experts in Finland say the debate on ageing needs to be rethought. Prof Vaarama says that it is wrong to classify all people aged over 65 as “old”. She argues true old age starts at 80-85. Before that, people could still be working and be consumers in the new so-called “silver economy”. “Society doesn’t yet understand what longevity is. We should look at how we can benefit from this population,” she adds.
This is a critical insight. The North American baby boomers are, for the most part, not feeling very old yet, and they aren’t selling their houses and moving to retirement communities that show all these photos of happy boomers drinking wine on the beach. In fact, according to Aging With Freedom,
Yes, there’s a big demographic wave of baby boomers hitting retirement. The front of that wave born right after WWII is turning 70. But they are not behaving like their parents. They often aren’t even retired at 70. Many don’t even plan a hard stop to careers. They expect to retire later and live longer. They have a strong preference to age-in-place.
Aging boomers are also worried about money. Retirement communities are expensive; aging in place, in one’s home, is “more familiar, less expensive, and more flexible.”
This all works wonderfully — until it doesn’t. That’s the demographic time bomb, when the leading edge of the baby boomers hit 80, starting about 10 years from now. That’s what we have to get ready for, and not by building isolated senior communities. Instead, we have to make our communities work for everyone, of all ages. Rachel Quenau of Strong Towns suggests three steps:
1. Make cities safe and easy to get around without a car.
— Mark Guslits (@guslits) April 12, 2019
This is critical. As we’ve noted many times, the ability to drive is one of the first things to go. Fully half of people over 80 are going to be having trouble with basic household activities like driving. “So many of our communities are downright dangerous for anyone outside a car, especially people who move a little slower or use a walker or wheelchair.”
Quenau calls for slowing down cars, but we also need serious implementation of Vision Zero, better walking infrastructure and maintenance. We need much wider sidewalks and separate, wider separate lanes for bikes and the new age of electric mobility. I like the way my old friend Mark sums it up in the tweet above.
2. Create housing options that work for people of all ages and abilities.
Most cities in North America have a zoning monoculture, pretty much prohibiting anything but single-family dwellings, setting minimum house sizes, banning backyard housing and tiny homes. But if people are going to be able to stay in their neighborhoods, we’ll need a variety of housing types.
3. Build communities that give people purpose and meaning.
This is really the natural result of 1 and 2; instead of being trapped in the house in front of the TV, people can get out, go to a library or a club, walk to a store. As Quenau concludes, “By building our cities at a walkable, human scale, with different housing options and stores, gathering places and resources nearby, we create a foundation for people from ages 1-100 to live happy, healthy lives now and in the future.”
And to accomplish this before the demographic time bomb goes off, we have to start right now.
We’re facing a demographic time bomb
We’ve got about a decade to fix our communities to cope with 70 million aging baby boomers.