Lessons from the 2015 White House Conference on Aging

On Tuesday, Challenge Factory held a briefing via teleconference to update Canadian organizations interested in demographics, aging and longevity on the recent 2015 White House Conference on Aging, held on July 13th. For the Hub, Challenge Factory president Lisa Taylor adapted her remarks for the guest blog that follows. – JC

Lisa Taylor, Challenge Factory

By Lisa Taylor,

Challenge Factory

Special to the Financial Independence Hub

I first met Nora Super, CEO of the 2015 White House Conference on Aging last November when I was a speaker at a large symposium in Arizona focused on the aging workforce. It was my distinct honour to speak with the conference team in the weeks before the event and to participate as the only Canadian host of watch parties.

In 1961, Present Kennedy had the foresight to convene the first ever White House Conference on Aging – and he ensured that at least once a decade Congress was obligated to hold the event as a way to ensure the complexities and opportunities longevity offer were considered from a social, economic, environmental and legal perspective. “Science,” Kennedy is quoted “has added years to our life. Our task is now to add life to those years.”

50th anniversary of Medicare & Medicaid

This year’s conference happened in the year that marks the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security. Organizers stated “The White House Conference on Aging is an opportunity to recognize the importance of these programs, highlight new actions to support Americans as we age and focus on the powerful role that technology can play in the lives of older Americans in the decade ahead.”

The 2015 edition of the conference built on a year-long effort to listen, learn, and share with older adults, families, caregivers, advocates, community leaders, and experts in the aging field. It aimed to embrace the transformative demographic shift occurring in the United States and recognize the possibilities of healthy aging.

In Canada, we do not have a mechanism like the White House Conference on Aging to co-ordinate efforts and ensure that there is regular focus and measurement of how demographics and longevity are affecting our social fabric. While there are partnerships and alliances among various levels of government, non profit organizations, heath care organizations, post-secondary institutions, private enterprises and citizens, no single event or milestone ensures that voices from a variety of perspectives and disciplines come together for a day of learning, reflection and policy prioritization.

The U.S. Conference was organized around four major themes: Caregiving, Financial Security, Healthy Aging and Elder Justice. The initial agenda topics circulated earlier this year had an almost exclusive focus on the “oldest of the old” population. In the months leading up to it there was a significant effort to shift at least some of the agenda to focus on the mid-life segment of the 50+ population.

Longevity gains means extra productivity

As in Canada, there is still work to be done for leaders, political, corporate and community, to understand that longevity’s extra years of life are not being experienced in longer years of being aged and in decline. Rather we are benefiting from extra years of productivity, contribution and engagement.

This distinction is important to ensure that the dialogue, funding and initiatives focus on a healthy society at all ages and shifts from the traditional view that people over 50 or 60 need assistance to support them in decline.

When Social Security was enacted in the 1930s and when Kennedy launched the White House Conference on Aging in the 1960s there was a recognition that Americans need support in their last decade of life to ensure quality care is available. But today’s 50, 60 and for the most part, 70 year olds are not yet at this stage of life. As Marc Freedman from Encore.org states, they are in a new period within mid-life.

We must continue to lobby and advocate for a focus on topics that include meaningful innovation in the areas of economic development, work, productivity and employment for people into their 70s and beyond in addition to the necessary elder care dialogue.

Announcements at the conference

Several announcements were made by the administration at the conference. A new, clarifying rule was proposed to assist States to implement retirement savings policy and vehicles. The rule will clarify pension restrictions and ensure that employers can automatically enroll employees into 401(k) retirement plans. In his remarks, President Obama also addressed the need for better retirement planning and saving, specifically identifying the new fiduciary standards that govern providers of financial and retirement advice.

In Canada, this type of oversight is being resisted by the sector. However the dialogue is clear that a concern about financial security and the professionalism of guidance remains a topic clients and advisors are discussing in the wake of the financial crisis.

Making corporate programs retirement ready

Six corporations, including Clorox and Alaskan Airlines, were identified and recognized for the programs that they run to ensure their employees will be retirement ready. Of note is the restrictive definition of “ready” focusing only on financial readiness. In Canada, Challenge Factory is seeing increased demand for our programs that address the non-financial aspects of retirement planning. Feedback and data indicates higher engagement and performance among employees nearing retirement age when companies address the whole issue of the transition employees face when retiring from their jobs, including the recognition that they may not be ending their career. In Canada’s dialogue, as in the US, there is a need to provide paths, programs and preparation for more than the financial impact of reducing or ceasing to work. Without this component we will never have programs focused truly on healthy aging.

Healthy Aging and intergenerational programs

Healthy aging was a cornerstone topic with new partnerships announced between YMCA and the Surgeon General to focus on intergenerational active living programs. These programs acknowledge that “aging” is something that starts at birth and is not restricted to people over a specific age. As a result, healthy habits, exercise, nutrition and mental health are critical for people of all ages. The kickoff for these events will occur in 750 YMCA communities across America during the first week in August.

The Conference highlighted the emerging and mature partnerships between community-based groups and the private sector that are making real change for citizens.

In Canada we are seeing slower progress on some of these innovative initiatives. In 2009 MaRS held a “Business of Aging Conference” in Toronto. At that time, at the very beginning of the wave of Boomers turning age 65, there was interest, but little action on really transformative and innovative new businesses. The event has not been repeated.

High Technology and the Senior Market

Today, American companies like Uber, AirBnB and Honor (a company that matches seniors with caregivers) acknowledge they are surprised to see the size of the market represented by their clients over 50. On a panel on technology, leaders from these three companies agreed that in the tech world “old is not sexy” – but that data has shown the significant client base using these technologies to arrange for rides, accommodation and care. They are shifting their strategy and focusing on the needs of this market in new ways, recognizing that between 50 and 90 there are many segments to target. Many of which now seem quite sexy – at least from a financial perspective.

Shifting view of Aging

This shifting view of aging is supported by access to data. As part of the announcements made last Monday, the US federal government announced that federal data sets related to aging and older Americans will be available on data.gov as part of the open data initiative. This resource will continuously be updated with datasets on aging, much like it is for other important Administration priorities such as climate, public safety, and education.

Over the course of the day-long conference a few themes emerge that Canadians should take note of. First, this White House Conference on Aging was community-based. Having lost its funding but still having a mandate to be held, the organizers created local watch parties and consultation mechanisms. Criticized for not being as large as it had been in the past, the local focus may well lead to faster, more innovative adoption of new programs than a centralized conference in Washington would have. But, there is concern that the policy initiatives and attention of Congress is not ambitious enough. For a conference that only takes place once a decade there has been criticism that we needed to see ground breaking type activity and, instead, received a great update on initiatives that are interesting, important and incremental.

Canada also struggles between incrementalism and revolutionary change

In Canada we struggle with this too – the tension between incrementalism and revolutionary change. There is great work being done in silos across the country on topics related to aging — from gerontology to urban planning, from academia to new models of care for seniors in the shelter systems.

Aging is the topic of the next few decades as we adapt to our own longevity, including a shift in what a realistic working life expectancy should be. These discussions are taking place among citizens and in local communities without ways for collaboration to be easy or effective.

Roles cities will play

Consistently throughout the conference emphasis was placed on the roles cities will play in the advancement of thought, services, products and research in the field. We are fortunate in Canada to be host to the Global Cities Initiative, housed at U of T, which is the leading global provider of data and analysis on cities around the world.

A final observation has to do with the language and approach that has evolved in the US, compared to here in Canada. Most of the conference focused on the need for intergenerational solutions. The use of the term intergenerational was not accidental and it is not the same as the more prevalent term used in Canada “multi generational.”

At Challenge Factory we know from our work that the real transformative opportunity exists by leveraging the potential and power that happens when generations work together and not as distinct cohorts cohabitating within the same workplace or community. The term multi means many and emphasizes difference between. In Canada we have not yet moved from focusing on the difference between generational cohorts. We still look at programs that benefit a particular demographic – be it youth or seniors. While the White House Conference language has shifted to recognize the focus is not the group but on the connections between, some of the initiatives fall short of this potential.

Challenge Factory will be launching an ambitious program for corporate and community leaders this fall focused on Intergenerational Leadership. We will be in Calgary in Sept, Halifax in October, Toronto in November and Ottawa in January to collaborate with local partners.

The purpose of the White House Conference on Aging is to ensure that Congress and, indeed, all Americans turn their attention every 10 years to recognize the progress that has been made in areas related to aging and longevity – and to identify work still to be done. From those in the field of innovation and longevity it was seen as a good conference with moments of great potential. However, as our demographics continue to shift the real opportunity requires extended periods of great movement, not incrementalism. The topics and discussions need to evolve beyond what was relevant in the 1960s – we need to address the long-standing issues that continue to exist while not being distracted from the opportunity to leap forward.

Beyond financial preparedness

Thinking beyond financial preparedness, harnessing the power of new collaborations and leveraging our immense access to data are three themes we should take from the 2015 conference to challenge ourselves to transform what it means to have a full, productive, contributing life. I look forward to leading this dialogue here in Canada.

Challenge Factory is a North American thought leader on topics related to demographics, longevity and the changing workforce. Challenge Factory programs transform outdated career, talent and succession management models inside of organizations, support managers to become better career advisors and guide individuals to find Legacy Careers®. Lisa is a sought after keynote speaker, writer and strategist. www.challengefactory.ca



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