Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

Living Edition
| Editors: Danan Gu, Matthew E. Dupre

Aging Policy Ideas

  • Anne SnickEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_214-1



The term “aging policy ideas” refers to the development of innovative policies in response to the complex problem of aging populations. Complexity means a development that appeared positive unexpectedly turns into a societal problem. New policy ideas take this complexity into account by analyzing the framing underlying former policies, and by creating settings for testing more adapted policy ideas.


The aging of the population as a demographic change is partly the result of sustained policies and innovations to increase longevity. Yet today, in many parts of the world, aging populations are seen as a problem requiring specific policies. Moreover, given the fact that further population growth may well threaten human survival on Earth, this is a paradox. In order to understand which policy ideas on aging are relevant and needed today, it is essential to understand where this paradox comes from and what can be learned from it. Similar to other current societal challenges, aging is a complex problem. Complexity means there are no linear developments whereby “more of a good policy” leads to “more of the desired results” but – in a non-linear way – often causes significant and unforeseen problems. Understanding complexity and its implications for policy development is crucial (Chapman 2015).

By analyzing the way the aging of the population is framed in current socioeconomic systems, the “problem of aging” can be defined more accurately. This reveals that two approaches are possible. The first one is that the current framing is maintained, and the existing system is reinforced by policies in response to aging. The second one is that the prevalent framing is seen as no longer adequate for the current context of aging populations, and innovative policy ideas explore solutions from a different, more sustainable framing. Although the first approach is still dominant, many policies based on a radically different approach are emerging. These are laboratories of possible pathways to policy ideas that are more fit to deal with the complex context of aging populations (and other societal crises). For those new initiatives to have a societal impact, policies reinforcing them are necessary. Recent developments at global, regional, and national levels indicate that the political support for this approach is growing.

Aging as a Complex Challenge

The demographic evolution toward an aging population is seen as a societal problem requiring adapted policies. For instance, the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy White Paper states that the strategy will be focused on addressing selected societal challenges; apart from clean growth, future of mobility, artificial intelligence and the data economy, this includes the aging society (Mazzucato 2018). This is a paradox since this demographic evolution is itself the result of huge societal efforts. What was (and today still is) seen as a desirable goal (i.e. increased longevity) appears to be a problem. This means aging of the population should be studied from a complexity perspective, considering its nonlinear and paradoxical characteristics (Chapman 2015). In order to develop relevant policies, it is crucial first to understand this “aging paradox”; aging policies in the Western world will be taken as a case in point.

In the past, the demographic curve had a pyramid shape. Many infants were born while child mortality yet was high, the average life expectancy of adults was lower than today, and only a small group reached old age. Since World War II, total fertility rates declined; due to growing wealth and welfare policies, child mortality decreased and average life expectancy went up, resulting in a chest-shaped demographic curve, with a relatively substantial proportion of senior citizens. This evolution is a sign of human progress. Medical research tries to halt the process of aging and to fight aging-related diseases so as to increase longevity (Harari 2015). From that perspective, an aging population is the desired achievement, not a problem (See “Causes of Population Aging”).

In the context of the Anthropocene, the paradox of aging reveals itself even more acute. The term “Anthropocene” describes the current geological epoch, in which humans have an impact on the geochemical processes characterizing Earth since the Holocene (Heikkurinen 2017). The Holocene is the period of the past 12,000 years during which the climate was relatively stable, allowing for the development of agriculture and creating the conditions for human civilizations to flourish. Since humans are changing these stable parameters, the planetary system and the socioeconomic systems that depend on it face severe crises. In response to this, the United Nations in 2015 adopted the Global Agenda 2030 comprising 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goals such as “No poverty” and “Good health and well-being” also contribute to the longevity of the world population.

The SDGs aim at a decent level of well-being for the entire world population of 7.7 billion while at the same time restoring the ecosystem and stabilizing the climate (See “Climate Resilience”). As increasing human comfort requires resources and energy, achieving this within planetary boundaries will be a complex challenge. Today countries with the highest Human Development Index have an ecological footprint far exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth.

Given the finite amount of renewable resources and the Earth’s limited capacity to absorb waste products (such as CO2 and chemical pollution), an increase in world population makes it even harder to achieve the SDGs. Since the appearance of humankind on the planet, the natural space for wild species and biodiversity has almost disappeared, to the point of destroying the ecosystem humans depend on. In that light, further population growth is a severe threat and even an impossible scenario (McNeill and Engelke 2014). Global warming at the current level (between 1°C and 1.5°C) causes heat waves, declining crop yields, water scarcity, floods, and forest fires (IPCC 2014). The threshold of 2°C can only be avoided if humanity succeeds in reducing CO2 emissions by 60% by 2030. Once global warming reaches 2°C, reinforcing mechanisms will kick in, causing sea levels to rise (Heikkurinen 2017). Since coastal areas, home to 10% of the world population, will no longer be habitable and water supplies will be seriously imperilled, the pressure on planetary resources will accelerate. So, for future generations to be able to live comfortably without having to wage wars for scarce land and resources, a decline in population is a desirable scenario. This means that – until the global population settles at a more sustainable level – an ice cone-shaped curve is desirable, with fewer young people and a relatively significant percentage of older people.

This brief overview shows the complexity of the aging problem. Aging is in an indicator of well-being; for younger generations, a population decline lowers the risk of having to struggle for scarce planetary resources and opens perspectives for peaceful and thriving societies. In that light, a shrinking population, resulting temporarily in a substantial proportion of aging people, is needed. The current framing of aging as a societal problem is, therefore, a paradox that needs to be clarified before exploring policy ideas.

The Impact of Framing

If the aging population is framed as a societal problem, this is related to the socioeconomic systems that are supposed to guarantee the well-being of older generations. In Western Europe, these systems were developed in a period when the world population was about two billion. In that region of the world they functioned well for several decades. However, in the current context of a globalized economy with 7.7 billion people and regions with an aging population, the inherent errors of this system are amplified and result in societal problems (Chapman 2015).

Since the industrial revolution, economic productivity in the Global North has increased significantly. Colonial powers allowed themselves unrestricted access to abundant natural resources worldwide, assuming there were no limits to the Earth’s capacity to supply extractable materials for economic growth and to absorb waste. This extractive model got firmly embedded in economic theory and policy, and spurred the emergence of an economic system aiming at using people and planet as resources for its own growth (McNeill and Engelke 2014).

Economic extraction is also fuelled by a monetary system that is “scarce by design.” This money comes into circulation whenever banks write out loans; it is created virtually, as only about a tenth of the loan is backed up by savings deposits. The debtors have to pay back the loan with interest, which they are not allowed to create virtually, but have to extract from their economic interactions. The total amount of money in circulation is thus systematically less than what economic actors collectively owe the banks, and competition for scarce money becomes a systemic feature. Instead of cancelling debts at regular time intervals as rulers throughout history have done, governments now take out new loans to cover public debts. Shareholders expect a financial return on their investment, so companies have to keep making money to survive while the economy has to continue growing endlessly (Snick 2017).

In this financial-economic system, people are seen as a factor of productivity, providers of labor. Given the competitive nature of this model, only “productive” activities are valorized as “work.” Since social laws protect children from economic exploitation, only adults are “productive.” However, as people grow older and their physical and mental capacities weaken, they become less productive and may be discriminated against (See “Age discrimination in the workplace”). In economic terms, older persons become a cost, and longevity is seen as a risk, just like disabilities or care tasks that make people “less productive.” Governments created redistributive mechanisms as insurance systems against those risks, in the form of pension funds, health- and child care. Care for older people in this system depends on (1) government income from economic growth (wealth) and (2) the establishment and continued governance of systems of redistribution of this wealth.

Aging: Two Possible Framings for Policies

When aging populations are described as a problem, it is mostly because this redistributive system is under pressure. Often this is ascribed to the higher relative proportion of “costly seniors” compared to “productive adults,” making the care burden seem out of proportion. Yet this argument does not consider the increased economic productivity over the last decades. Since the 1960s there has been stable economic growth of about 2%, meaning that (corrected for inflation) total wealth has quadrupled since then.

What has decreased is not the amount of (redistributable) wealth but the mechanisms available to governments for its redistribution. Companies and shareholders see this redistribution as a threat to their profits and competitiveness. In a globalized economy, companies can move almost overnight to countries with lower wages, less social regulations, or weaker redistributive mechanisms. So, governments are reluctant to raise taxes or impose redistribution as this may “chase companies away,” causing unemployment and loss of government income. This mechanism leads to a race to the bottom regarding social and ecological policies.

Based on this analysis, the “problem of aging societies” can be framed in two ways. The first one is: given the extractive socioeconomic system, the aging of the population (paradoxically) is a problem. The second one is: given the (desirable) aging of the population, the extractive socioeconomic model is a problem. The contrast between these two framings is present in already-existing and widely used aging policy ideas. On the one hand, concepts such as “active aging” and “productive aging” are often interpreted (and criticized) as top-down concepts with a focus on keeping older persons longer in the prevalent, extractive economic system. The concept of “creative aging,” on the contrary, is seen more as a bottom-up strategy strengthening the capabilities of older persons to choose various lifestyles and to undertake public and creative activities, with dignity as the fundamental value and goal for future development including all people (Klimczuk 2017).

Since the extractive economic model has been embedded in academic theory, legislation, institutions, language, and habits, most politics are path-dependent and unreflexively adopt the first framing. Economic and monetary systems are not treated as changeable human constructs but as a given. This framing also limits the kind of solutions that are envisioned (Tversky and Kahneman 1981). It spurs policies that aim at reinforcing the extractive system in response to an aging population. Examples of this approach are: raising the pension age, funding research and innovations for keeping seniors productive, stimulating families and communities to assume the care for seniors so as to reduce government costs, importing migrant workers to sustain the aging labor force, etc (See “Age Management and Labor Market Policies”). The European Commission in its Horizon 2020 Work Programme 2018–2020 for research and innovation explicitly describes its expected impact as “competitive advantage for European industry through flexible and sustainable work arrangements for an ageing workforce” (EC 2018).

In the Anthropocene, the implicit errors of the extractive model escalate and produce unforeseen crises (Chapman 2015; Jasanoff 2016). These push the system to explore new paradigms and to create room for the emergence of initiatives based on the second framing, that is: “given the increasing need to care (for older people, future generations, healthy ecosystems…), the extractive economic model is a problem.” This opens perspectives on innovative solutions and policy ideas. Their adoption depends on (1) the political commitment to put the redesign of the socioeconomic system on the agenda and (2) a methodological framework to design new policies for a complexity context.

New Policy Developments for Aging in a Complex Context

A step toward a new political agenda in response to societal challenges was taken by the United Nations in 2015 when 193 nations adopted the Global Agenda 2030 (See “Sustainable Development Goals and Population Aging”). This agenda is radically new, first in that it is global in scope, and second in that its goals are interconnected. Policies should no longer be developed in separate sectors or siloes, but have to work together toward the global agenda. This implies a redesign of the current socioeconomic model. If the economic function is to organize access and allocation of resources to the needs of all people, economic growth (SDG 8) can no longer be realized through increasing extraction of human and planetary resources since this undermines almost all other SDGs. It can only be understood as “growth in economic functionality”, bringing about more well-being for all living beings while using fewer resources (Snick 2017) and giving more people access to a comfortable life while the health of ecosystems is restored. This “regenerative” economy currently takes shape in various innovative practices and theories (Wahl 2016) (See “Moral Economy Theory”).

Such transformative innovations also emerge in the field of aging. In response to the diminishing public leverages for redistributing extractive money, some local governments and organizations develop community currencies that stimulate care for and among older persons. Examples are Zeitpolster in Austria (Rumpold 2017), Fureai Kippu in Japan (Hayashi 2012), and Neighborhood Pension in Belgium (Vermeulen 2016). Other initiatives redefine “work” as “contributing to the well-being of the community” (rather than to private competitiveness) including older persons as essential contributors, rather than excluding them as a cost (See “Indigenous Cultural Generativity: Teaching Future Generations to Improve Quality of Life”). Initiatives such as intergenerational volunteering exemplify this while offering solutions for challenges which the market economy cannot tackle (Hatton-Yeo 2016) (See “Intergenerational Programs”). Other developments are initiatives aiming at housing for older people with community-based (rather than market-driven) tools (See “Co-operative Housing”); an example is the Biloba House, active in a poor neighborhood in Brussels (Cortier et al. 2012). Moreover, under the impetus of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, adopted in 2002 by 159 governments, various states have developed aging policies or legislation broadening the concept of development so as to include the contributions of older people (UNFPA 2011). “Older persons are frequently active through voluntary activities, care work, household or subsistence work or informal labour – activities that are not measured in economic terms despite the fact that these activities contribute to wider economic and social development” (United Nations 2003). Older persons’ participation in cultural, economic, political, and social life is also influenced by their socioeconomic status, and this, in turn, is highly dependent on income security and social security systems. Some countries, as for example Japan, provide government subsidies for the establishment of senior citizens’ centers or clubs. In Thailand, where health promotion and participation have been the main national policies for decades, implemented through senior citizen clubs all over the country, over 25 per cent of the Thai older population (approximately 1.8 million older persons) were members of senior citizen clubs in 2007 (UN 2003).

Developing new methodological frameworks for tackling such complex problems has been fostered by the European Commission’s research programs on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). As they concern global problems that manifest themselves differently in various local communities, a decentralized organization of RRI is needed, complementing the centralized and specialist academic research (Snick 2017). Given the complexity and nonlinearity of current challenges and the interconnectedness of the sustainable development goals, no single discipline can produce solutions by itself. Involving societal actors (citizens, regenerative entrepreneurs, public services) in the research and innovation process leads to a better understanding of the complexity of the problem, and strengthens the uptake of the solutions that are developed (Snick 2017). This approach is also applied in RRI on aging populations, actively involving senior citizens and other stakeholders in the development of adequate policies (Verté and de Witte 2017).

Future Directions of Research

These emerging initiatives can be seen as laboratories for testing the latest ideas for increasing governments’ capacity to guarantee the well-being of all in a society with a substantial proportion of older persons. For the transition toward this more functional (regenerative) socioeconomic system, these bottom-up initiatives (“upward causality”) need reinforcement by policy measures (“downward causality”) so as to strengthen their cohesion in such a way that through their interactions they continue to produce innovative ideas and insights (Chapman 2015). These innovative approaches should not only be developed in the traditional “silo” of social policies, but should be supported by various policy domains. Leverage points could, for example, include the encouragement of local and community currencies (to correct the extractive pull of bank money) and creation of innovative financial legislation; prioritizing complexity-based RRI in agendas, financing, and valorization regulations for research and innovation; and creating legal frameworks to foster common-good-oriented entrepreneurship to replace extractive practices. The adoption by the United Nations of the Global Agenda 2030 can give a strong impetus to this transition.


New policy ideas on aging involve not only innovative ideas on how to support aging populations, but also new ideas on policymaking. While former policies were successful for some decades in the wealthy parts of the world, current complex societal challenges urge policymakers to advance radically new policy ideas for a global complexity context. Emerging bottom-up initiatives as well as new policy frameworks – such as the SDGs – show that this transition is well underway, but the need for continued governance remains.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.SAPIRR—Systems Approach to Public Innovation and Responsible ResearchOud-HeverleeBelgium

Section editors and affiliations

  • Magdalena Klimczuk-Kochańska
    • 1
  • Andrzej Klimczuk
    • 2
  1. 1.Faculty of ManagementUniversity of WarsawWarsawPoland
  2. 2.Independent ResearcherBialystokPoland