Upon returning to my car after my interview with social gerontologist Carole Gordon, I encounter the following things on Tauranga’s main street: two kids swerving all over the footpath on bikes; a café patron pushing her chair out into my path; countless shop windows displaying mannequins dressed in young women’s clothing; and a portion of uneven pavement.

As a thirty-something, such things would normally seem commonplace – but Gordon has opened my eyes to how they would appear to an older person. One in three people in Tauranga will soon be a mature and older person over 65years. And, 79% of current growth is projected to be older people.

We have a long way to go before we can consider our communities in New Zealand age-friendly, Gordon says.

Gordon’s research reveals the importance of embracing age-friendly culture – and there is more to it than merely being good humans.

“Compassion will grow a silver economy,” she says, “We need to understand, adapt and innovate.”

What is the silver economy?

The silver economy has been described as a “global megatrend driven by unprecedented ageing”. It includes public and consumer expenditure related to population ageing. Older Kiwis contribute significantly to the New Zealand economy; they contributed $20.6 billion as consumers in 2016, rising to a projected $94 billion in 2061, they also increasingly contribute as taxpayers, as wage earners, and as volunteers.

The SUPA-NZ Silver Economy research report showed the value of the Bay of Plenty silver economy alone sat at $2.55b in 2016 and is set to rise to $6.92b by 2031 and $15.62b by 2061. That’s bigger than the region’s booming kiwifruit economy.

Gordon says we can’t afford to ignore that this demographic is making such a significant contribution to our economy. It provides a significant opportunity for younger generations especially in a Fourth Industrial revolution technology context.

We all know our population is ageing. The overall birthrate is slowing and people are living longer. (Fact: the human lifespan has been growing at a rate of five hours a day for the last fifty years!) Yet policies and planning are slow to react. Ageing and climate change are two of the biggest challenges facing civilization, but our actions to embrace these challenges have been decidedly unremarkable to date.

At the local level, councils are building children’s playgrounds at an incredible rate when they should be adapting their budgets to include the installation of adult fitness parks and neighbourhood amenities. They are building shared pathways that can’t be shared by everyone.

These might be simple examples, but these are the sorts of decisions councils around the country are making as they finalise their ten-year policy plans this year.

A change in attitudes needed

Gordon says the silver economy is dependent on attitude change and business innovation to meet the demands of a mature population. At a global level, this means tech financial and pharmaceutical companies coming up with innovative products and solutions. At a local level it could mean transforming the service provided by trades, or retailers stocking appropriate products for older people, and harnessing the potential of innovation by younger generations in order to meet the needs of the local and global super-ageing people.

Business transformation is ultimately underpinned by attitudinal change at the individual level, says Gordon.

Gordon says New Zealand has a long way to go in terms of changing attitudes towards older people. She says retirement is an outdated concept, a dead word, and even an unkind word, owing to its connotations that a person’s usefulness has expired.

She says we need to change the focus to longevity, and the exciting prospects that come with living a great hundred-year life.

Gordon believes this gear-change needs to be driven from the ground-level up. To this end SUPA-NZ was established to foster change. It also offers an age-friendly accreditation service for businesses.

She gives the example of how Tauranga shopping centre Cherrywood is transforming itself simply by recognizing the importance of taking an age-friendly approach to business and retail. Businesses saw the recognition another received and are similarly adapt their practices.

Trust Power is another good example of a company that has worked hard to become an age-friendly organization. From its approach to customer service to the readability of their power bills, it has tweaked aspects of its offering to become a shining example of how businesses can meet the needs of older consumers.

Social investment is key

Again, there’s more to it than merely adhering to good inclusive business practice – although that’s part of it.

“Social investment in community wellbeing, housing, transport, lifelong learning and age-friendly environments balances the healthcare demand which we can’t afford,” Gordon says.

By supporting older people to take active roles in our communities, we are counteracting what Gordon describes as a “largesse of dependency”.

In 2021, the first wave of baby boomers will hit 75. Very soon they will be knocking on the door of a healthcare system that is under-resourced to meet the demand. It is in society’s interests to conduct itself in a more age-friendly manner, to ease the potential burden on public healthcare.

Gordon notes that In one of his first speeches as Finance Minister, Grant Robertson says he has asked Treasury to further develop and accelerate the Living Standards Framework, which focuses on measuring New Zealand’s success in developing financial, physical, human and social capital. Collectively, these give a much fuller picture than GDP alone at determining whether a policy is successful.

Gordon applauds this move. In her view, social investment is key to any strategic policy change that will optimise silver economic development. Her research shows that social investment in wellness allows older people to stay active and be productive contributors. Active ageing is brought about through age-friendly community and business environments, products and services, which enable greater contribution of older people.

It all makes good sense, from both a social and economic lens and it’s hard to comprehend why councils and local governments aren’t being more generous with the age-friendly dollar. Growing awareness of the challenges ahead and support for initiatives like SUPA-NZ will surely help.

Hopefully my seventy-something self will encounter courteous pedestrians, smooth footpaths and shops aimed at the older person when I walk down Devonport Road one day.

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