Research Network on an Aging Society

This research network brings together scholars who are conducting a broad-based analysis of how to help the nation prepare for the challenges and opportunities posed by an aging society. Research focuses on how major societal institutions, including retirement, housing and labor markets, government and families, will have to change to support the emergence of a productive, equitable aging society.

About This Network

Today, Americans are living 30 years longer than their ancestors did just four generations ago.  Yet policymakers have been slow to recognize the implications of this unprecedented increase in longevity.

As a result, social institutions of all kinds – workplaces, communities, families, educational organizations, healthcare providers – have not yet adapted to the challenges and opportunities posed by America’s aging population.   Nor is there any consensus over what successful adaptation might look like.

The mission of the MacArthur Foundation Network on an Aging Society, established in 2008, is to articulate an intellectual framework that can guide effective responses to the aging of America and to promote policy options that can help achieve this objective.   

The network began by highlighting common myths about aging that prevent policymakers and the general public from understanding the true dimensions of the challenges that lie ahead.   In particular, it stressed that demographic shifts changing structure of society will be permanent, not limited to the Baby Boomers getting older.

Research that documents the size and characteristics of the aging population of the future and how best to measure the costs and benefits associated with this population, has been a priority. That work is ongoing, along with research examining the impact of technology on an aging society and how to keep older adults in the workforce longer.

Crafting a theory of social adaptation to aging has entailed elucidating key values.   The goal put forth by the network is a society characterized by intergenerational cohesion rather than conflict, where resources are distributed across age groups and where the opportunity to be engaged and productive is enhanced over the entire life course.

Also, the network has emphasized that there are many potential benefits associated with a larger, older population of adults with substantial experience, skills, knowledge, and problem-solving ability.  These benefits have received little serious attention and need to be balanced against legitimate concerns over the cost of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

Going forward, the network will focus on three key themes:

Intergenerational relations: How can older people best be integrated in the broader society?  How can connections between young people, people in middle age, and people of advanced age be enhanced and social cohesion promoted?

Roles and responsibilities: If people are to remain productive and engaged over the course of their lives, including in older age, what does this mean for education, work, retirement, civic engagement, and other facets of social life?

Diversity and inequalities: Will the society of the future be one of aging “haves” and “have nots”?  If there are sharp inequalities in the experience of aging defined by socioeconomic status, what are the implications?   Will an increasingly diverse younger and middle aged population be willing to support  a white older population, or will social tensions arise over generational differences?

Network products include briefs outlining policy options in six major areas:   family issues, housing, health care, human capital (education, learning), productivity (work, retirement and volunteerism) and social cohesion (promoting connections between and within generations).

Drawing from the example of the environmental movement, the network has suggested that all proposed policies in this arena undergo an “aging society impact study” to explain their potential impact in detail.

Key Research

Publication: Aging in America in the 21st Century.  Demographic Forecasts from the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society, by Olshansky, S. Jay, D. Goldman, Y. Zheng and J. Rowe. The Milbank Quarterly. Vol. 87, No. 4: 842‐862, 2009.

Demographic forecasts. This study modeled the impact of biomedical advances on life expectancy.  It concluded that government agencies have underestimated American’s likely life expectancy in 2050 by 3.1 to 7.9 years.  The economic consequences are enormous: total spending for Medicare and Social Security could climb $3.2 trillion to $8.3 trillion above current forecasts, based on these projections.

Publication: The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society (2009 ). Rowe, J.W. et al. Facts and Fictions About an Aging America, Contexts.  Vol. 8 (4) 16-21.

Dispelling myths. This paper examines seven myths about aging that interfere with policymakers’ ability to plan for the future.   The aging of America is a permanent change in the structure of society, not a temporary shift driven by the Baby Boomers, the authors say.  Also, contrary to popular belief, most people remain fit well into their later years and the welfare of young and old people is deeply intertwined.

Publication:  The MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society (2010).Rowe J W et al.  Policies and politics for an aging America. Contexts, 9 (1), 22-27

Charting policies. This paper calls for new policies that strengthen the ability of core institutions – workplaces, educational institutions, families, communities – to adapt to an aging society.  Policies should be implemented gradually and should help older people remain productive while  also addressing the health and well-being of other generations, the authors argue.     

Publication:  Successful Societal Adaptation to the Aging of America, by Rowe, J. W., (2011).  Public Policy and Aging Report. Vol. 21, No. 4, 11-16.

Adapting successfully. This paper argues that adapting successfully to an aging population requires a broad new perspective that embraces opportunities as well as challenges.  Substantial social benefits can come from older people with experience, wisdom, and problem-solving skills, and these need to be fostered and developed. Attention should be paid to strengthening the ties between different age groups and investing in human development over the entire life course, not just during youth.    

Publication: Is intergenerational cohesion falling apart in old Europe? by Boersch-Supan, A, Heller, G, and Reil-Held, A.. Public Policy and Aging Report. Vol 21,No. 4, 17-21

Looking internationally. This paper examines whether the growth of aging populations in Europe is associated with a higher prevalence of conflict between young and old people.  It found no clear or consistent relationship between the concentration of old people in a given area and the extent of such conflict. Fears that older adults will exploit the young are “inappropriate,” the authors write.