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Senescence in the City

5 May 2015
by Patrick Love

ageing in citiesAnecdotal 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.

Useful links

Sustainable Urban Development Policies in Ageing Societies



What will our livelihoods be like in 2030?

4 May 2015

TLivelihoodsoday’s post is by Martha Baxter and Bathylle Missika of the OECD Development Centre

Humankind has experienced more than two centuries of almost continuous progress since the Industrial Revolution, but will this trend continue? And as we prepare to adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals to guide our policy choices, how can we best capitalise on progress made while anticipating challenges ahead such as the youth bulge or massive droughts? A new report by the OECD Development Centre supported by the Rockefeller Foundation cautions that that a number of global trends could slow or even reverse the progress made. Securing Livelihoods for All: Foresight for Action looks at how the world’s livelihoods may change between now and 2030. It finds that threats may come from many fronts: from global economic trends and demographic transitions to environmental change and new technologies, among others.

The report doesn’t try to forecast what will happen. It uses foresight techniques to ask “what if?” questions and develop five stories of the future, interconnecting several trends we’re concerned about, and picking up on some of the weak signals coming from new and emerging trends.

Of the five possible futures developed in the OECD report, three are dire, involving massive population movements, inequality, poverty and citizen unrest, while two involve vibrant societies that possess the skills, creativity and flexibility to thrive and stave off global crises.

The first scenario is called “Automated North”. Automation proceeds faster than expected and affects ageing societies in particular. The rapid automation in advanced and some emerging economies means that jobs in most sectors are increasingly taken over by robots and artificial intelligence systems. The process is so fast that most people whose jobs are replaced by technology cannot adapt and find it difficult to secure their livelihoods. Inequality increases faster than expected. With fewer jobs available to nationals, pressure is growing to increase barriers to immigration in developed countries. Lower fiscal revenue combined with more people in need of social security support means that government debt becomes unmanageable. Social tensions and disruptions increase. In many developing countries, the automation process is much slower, meaning that these countries are no longer competitive, even in low-cost, low-value added sectors.

In the second scenario, “Droughts and joblessness in the South”, droughts become widespread in large parts of the developing world, challenging livelihoods in regions with large youthful populations (sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Middle East and South Asia). Subsistence farming becomes almost impossible and even larger scale farming is seriously challenged. Famines become normal, not only for small-scale farmers but also for poor people in urban areas as food prices sky-rocket. Migration takes place primarily within countries as rural populations flood to the cities. But international migration also increases as cities reach their absorption capacities. The pace of change – in the youth population explosion as well as in the severity of droughts – is very fast. Countries, communities and individuals are unlikely to be able to adapt livelihoods or support mechanisms fast enough. The result is hunger, increasing inequality and social disruption.

In the third scenario “Global financial crash, a major financial crisis triggers a collapse of the global trading system and a shift to protectionism. A housing bubble bursts in China and some other emerging countries. High levels of corporate debt in the developing world become unsustainable and lead to capital outflows. The European Union unravels, prompting another financial crisis. Commodity prices continue to fall rapidly, creating significant challenges for currency stability in countries relying on commodity exports. These financial disruptions trigger a major global economic crisis, affecting trade, investment and consumption. Protectionist pressure re-emerges but does not help to avoid social disruptions, and governments fail to address problems of increasing inequality. In developed and developing countries alike, many people’s livelihoods come under pressure. At least one billion people fall back into extreme poverty.

The “Regenerative economies” scenario posits a more positive vision of the future. Technological innovations create enough new jobs for most people and economic activity becomes more sustainable. Many new fields flourish, including cybersecurity, environmentally resilient engineering, robot-enhanced service jobs, and jobs requiring high skills in nanotechnology and biotechnology. As the real economy becomes a virtual economy, many sectors undergo a transformation. Country borders and distance become less relevant. Markets become more international than ever before. Countries reshape their education systems so that people can perform in the knowledge economy. Technological innovation in agriculture results in migration from rural to urban areas in many developing countries, but planned, medium-sized cities with energy-efficient infrastructure contribute to sustainable urbanisation rather than slumification. While impacts on livelihoods are positive overall, certain people will still need social security, but such systems will be more affordable for nation states under this scenario. This scenario could touch all regions of the world, but would come about faster in advanced and emerging countries.

In the final scenario, “Creative societies”, diverse experiments at the local level focus on individual resilience and social well-being. Technology-induced joblessness increases in developed and developing economies alike. Societies evolve towards new ways of living and working, in which individuals and communities are the key actors of change. In the absence of secure full-time employment, individuals must put together a portfolio of work – part-time jobs, shared work with colleagues, trading skills and services. This portfolio lifestyle is made possible by three important factors: technology, which allows people to work anywhere at any time; the adoption of guaranteed minimum incomes in most developed countries, paid for by higher taxes on capital, rather than labour; and new social attitudes in which young people are not so interested in consumer culture, but contribute to what might be called “the experience economy.” Cities pursue a green agenda, retrofitting buildings and prioritising water conservation. A robust urban food movement develops, involving urban community gardens. Public-private livelihood incubators flourish in most cities, providing job counselling, the matching of skills and opportunities, start-up financing, and individually tailored aid packages for young and old. Developed countries learn from experiments in social inclusiveness and adaptive, frugal innovation pioneered in developing economies.

So what is awaiting us? Which scenario triumphs depends on the building blocks laid down today, for example a shift in values towards prioritising sustainability, as highlighted in the “regenerative economies” scenario, and on policy choices. There are also many more scenarios that could be developed beyond the ones explored in the OECD report. But what matters is that imagining different scenarios of the future can create space for strategic, often difficult, conversations in today’s policy discussions. These conversations will allow us to discuss the livelihoods we have and the ones we want by 2030. The bad news is that in spite of the use of forecasts and foresight, we still do not have anything resembling a crystal ball. The good news is that we have more than a say in how our future livelihoods will unfold.

Useful links

Perspectives on global development from the OECD Development Centre

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