Senescence in the City
Anecdotal evidence suggests there are loads of grumpy old men and women around. A new, evidence-based report from the OECD offers some clues as to why this should be. The media are full of articles about the best places to retire to, and the typical result is a small town in a largely rural county, near the sea and maybe a golf course. The reality, according to Ageing in Cities, is that nearly half of the over-65s in the OECD area live in cities. Compare that with surveys such as one by the UK travel group Saga in 2009 that found that the farther people lived from big cities, the happier they were. Just 0.5% of the 14,000 over-50s polled thought London was a desirable place to live.
Some old people are retiring to the countryside, but the trend is for the older urban population to grow, presumably due to ageing rather than migration from outlying areas. Japan is usually the top of the table in any list concerning ageing, but this time it’s just behind Italy for older people as a share of the core metropolitan population, at just over and just under 22%, respectively. For areas away from the centre though, the “hinterland”, Japan is at least five percentage points ahead of the rest, at 25%.
Even within a given metropolitan area, there can be wide discrepancies. When the babyboomers were starting their families, they favoured residential suburbs built in the 1960s and 70s to offer cheap housing. Those young families have now grown up and the children have often tended to migrate towards city centres, rejuvenating the population and bringing a new dynamism to the economy. This is only one example of the upside of the demographic trends we’re seeing in urban areas.
Ageing in Cities lists various other “opportunities” in ageing societies of particular relevance to metropolitan areas. The housing and construction sectors for instance could be boosted by the need to remodel homes to meet the needs of the elderly. The current and future generations of older people are healthier than previous ones, and likely to live many healthy years in retirement. Their abilities and experience could be useful in voluntary activities ranging from helping children with their homework to passing on high-level skills and knowledge.
There are a number of problems (or “challenges” if you prefer) that could get worse though. For instance, increasing centralisation of services could leave many old people with inadequate access to health care, shops and social activities if transport planning does not take their needs into account. There could be social and political tensions around how to spend municipal budgets.
The priorities for policy makers will depend to a large extent on the stage of the demographic transition their city is going through: ageing cities with slow population growth where the share of the older population will eventually decline; young cities that are rapidly ageing; or young cities that are ageing slowly. Whatever the case, the report argues that a number of policy strategies can be useful. Outlawing the music, clothes, hairstyles and pastimes young people like would be an obvious first step for many old people, and that may be how they interpret “Visions for ageing societies should not exclusively target the older population.”
The OECD, however, is not advocating a Bieber-ban. It proposes using a number of indicators (on health, housing, transport, employment, etc.) that will help citizens, their representatives and public employees to understand the demographic shifts and decide how best to deal with them, or better still, anticipate them.
Ageing in Cities is full of interesting examples of what different places are actually doing already. The Yokohama Walking Point Programme for instance encourages people of all ages to improve their health by walking more using the “frequent flyer” model of airlines: the more you walk, the more points you get and these can be converted into discounts at local shops.
A change of attitude towards old people, and even what “old” means is central to many of the policies discussed. It’s customary to bemoan the lack of respect for older generations, but as the French historian Philippe Ariès pointed out, this has changed over time. From the Middle Ages until the end of the 17th century, the old were held in contempt. At best, they were expected to “retire” into a life of contemplation and study, and if possible, die quickly so their eldest son could take over (and not have to kill them). If they didn’t, they were like Molière’s “barbons” (greybeards), old men in their 40s ridiculed for not knowing when to quit. That changed in the 18th century when the classical Greek and Roman ideas of noble elders became fashionable again, to the extent that cheap American engravings of the time showed Christ as a white-haired oldie.
The largely positive associations persisted throughout the following century, even if there was still a strong negative undertone. The 20th century would see another major shift, with the growing popularity of retirement homes (and even communities) and other means of hiding the old and separating them from the rest of society.
It’s interesting to see a return to the 17th century ideal in some of the OECD proposals. It doesn’t actually call for a life of study, but it cites Lisbon’s Senior University where “senior” volunteers offer lectures to anybody aged over 50. It calls even less for a life of quiet contemplation, since the goal of such initiatives, like that of the Rakuno School in Toyama, Japan, is to increase the employability of older people, keep them socially active, but also to make them as light a burden on society as possible.