When President John F. Kennedy convened the first White House Conference on Aging, he said, “We have added years to life, now it’s time to add life to those years.” Fifty-eight years later, I recently returned from attending a United Nations Expert Group Meeting on “Measuring Population Ageing: Bridging Research and Policy.”  Hosted in Bangkok by the United Nations, IIASA (International Institute for Applied System Analysis), the European Research Council and Chulalongkorn University’s College of Population Studies, the forum was designed to explore a new way of measuring aging by examining the enormous potential of added longevity.

Traditionally, the United Nations and most researchers have used measures based on people’s chronological age. While this approach has provided a clear way to compute various indicators of aging, it’s looked at aging through a backward lens and ignored advances in life expectancy. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau measures the percentage of Old Age Dependency for a specific location by including all residents below the age of 16 and over the age of 65 as “dependent.”

Forward-looking definition of age

Over the last decade, however, two pioneering demographers – Warren Sanderson, Professor of Economics and History at Stony Brook University in New York, and Sergei Scherbov, Deputy Program Director of the World Population Program (POP) at IIASA — have been shaping a new forward-looking definition of age called “Prospective Age.”  Prospective Age measures how old people are, not only from the date of their birth, but also in relation to their potential to contribute throughout their extended longevity. This future-forward picture shifts expectations that will affect national and international development goals, policies and programs, with significant implications for labor markets, lifelong education and health, and intergenerational relationships.

Four points to demonstrate the positive potential of aging:

  • Senior entrepreneurship is boosting economies locally and globally. The highest rate of entrepreneurship worldwide has shifted to the 55–64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to find successful companies than those between 20 and 34.
  • Five years after the business startup, 70% of ventures established by senior entrepreneurs who are optimizing their years of experience were still in operation compared to 28% of enterprises established by younger entrepreneurs.
  • Senior entrepreneurs in Australia are contributing approximately $12 billion per annum to the country’s economy.
  • In the UK, research has shown that if the employment rate of 50 to 64 year-olds matched that of the 35-49 age group, the UK economy could be boosted by £88bn.

Concept of ageing potential

When I received an invitation to the Bangkok forum that Drs. Sanderson and Scherbov had designed to examine different population concepts and methodologies with 154 cross-sector experts from 18 countries, I immediately wrote and asked Dr. Sanderson if he had made a mistake. I said, “I am not a demographer nor data scientist.”   He graciously replied, “I am well aware of who you are. The purpose of this forum is to bring leaders from different sectors together to discuss the applicability of various measures of aging in different contexts. You are one of the few people discussing the social and economic value of longevity. It aligns with our aging potential concept, and we need your voice in the room.”

It was an honor to participate in such an original, multi-dimensional forum.  The energy in the room was palpable as leading scientists, qualitative researchers and storytellers were dynamically collaborating with one another to strategically develop and apply a measure of aging will encourage every one of us to realize the potential of the Longevity Revolution in real time.

In conclusion, I would like to add another quote from President Kennedy. In 1963, he said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”  I think he would have been very proud of the work accomplished at the Bangkok forum!


You can see video of the entire Bangkok forum below and all presentation slides are available on the conference website.

For more information, read the Re-aging Project: Reassessing Aging from a Population Perspective

Elizabeth Isele Founder and CEO,
Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship
Phone: 207.318.2446