How aging may unfold in the future

Editor’s note: Matt Carmichael is the SVP, head of Ipsos Trends and Foresight Lab headquartered in Paris. 

In our Aging issue of What the Future magazine, we identify five tensions that will have an impact as they change over time – or if they don’t change. What do we mean by that? When we think about the future, one lens we like to use is ideological tensions. Humans are at the center of all of our work at Ipsos and foresight is no different. Macro forces drive change, to be sure. But our opinions, attitudes, behaviors and values will impact how we react to that change and shape the degree of the change itself in people, markets and society.

One reason thinking through these tensions today is that we can use force-choice questions to take the temperature of the public today and set a baseline that can be measured over time. Here’s where we stand currently on key tensions in the aging space and some expert opinions on what that means for the future.

1. Varying comfort levels regarding retirement.

The first generation to rely mostly on investment income (rather than a defined pension) is retiring. The younger generations don’t number enough to cover current Social Security payments and only 37% of younger Americans think there will be money left in the system when they retire. They feel the tension between fear of running out of money and fear of losing independence. Today’s Americans, 42% of whom don’t have any money left after paying bills, are uncertain about their financial tomorrow. Or worse yet, they are certain about a hopeless outcome. What happens if more people think the safety net will be pulled out from under them? Or what happens if confidence grows?

2. Aging naturally compared to the use of cosmetics.

Cosmetics have been used by humans for millennia for a wide variety of reasons, including to disguise aging or smooth wrinkles. More recently, surgery and injectables have taken the degree to which we can control our appearance even further. What’s on the horizon and how does that change as life expectancy changes? Today, 77% of people say they want their appearance to age naturally vs. 23% who say they want to do whatever they can to slow that process. Kevin Shapiro, senior vice president of U.S. marketing, consumer beauty at Coty says, “The positive sign that we see overall is that the self-perception will be more positive and allow an openness for consumers to adapt and follow what’s a very normal, human biological process.” 

3. Independent vs. assisted living.

One thing you hear a lot in discussions of aging is the idea of being a burden on younger generations. The way to avoid that, most feel, is to live independently. Eighty-one percent say that’s what they want, but that can present practical challenges as well. Part of the challenge is that aging in place often requires care, even if it’s just help with chores and fixing the Wi-Fi. That care takes time and money for families, too. Ramsey Alwin, president and CEO of the National Council, says that often means trade-offs for those individuals to give their loved one the quality of support. “They are often taking time off work, maybe leaving work earlier than expected in order to provide care.”

4. Aging at home or living in an institution.

Americans vastly prefer (81%) to stay in their homes as they age. But it’s not easy for older people who must maintain that home and drive for errands and appointments. Meanwhile, their home itself might be working against them, with too many stairs and narrow doors, as well as light switches and thermostats that are hard to reach from a wheelchair. Changing these things takes money, but so does caregiving. AARP’s housing lead, Rodney Harrell, thinks that new tools can help us achieve our goal. “Technology is one of those areas in which we have potential to do more and more things that are helpful for us, but we’ve just got to get it right,” he says. Part of “right” means making sure the technology is working and affordable for everyone. What happens if it’s not?

5. Trusting AI-driven technology to assist with caregiving.

Our last tension is about AI and trust. A majority of people don’t trust AI-driven technology to assist with their caregiving. With most tech, trust grows – until it doesn’t. As more of these products come to market and mature, this 60/40 tension could easily dissipate. One might think that would certainly be the case as currently tech-savvy younger generations age.

Dor Skuler CEO and co-founder of Intuition Robotics sees one potential counterpoint: You can learn anything at any age, he says. It just takes longer when you’re older. But he notes, “The rate of change around us is not slowing down. It’s accelerating like no point before in human history. The amount of stuff you need to keep up with is not static.” As tech advances continue in coming decades, will today’s techsters be able to keep up any better than today’s elders have?

senior woman taking blood sugar levels with smart phone

The future of aging

There are many plausible scenarios about how the future of aging will unfold. But as it does, keeping an eye on these human tensions will act as waypoints. By keeping an eye on these benchmarks, we will gain insights into which future we might be heading toward. 

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