The Aging of America: Challenges and Opportunities, Remarks by MacArthur President Robert Gallucci
April 7, 2010 | Speech | Policy Research

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Good evening. I am Bob Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation. I am glad to welcome you here this evening as our distinguished panelists discuss an issue with profound implications for our future.

America is aging. Powerful demographic trends, coupled with advances in science and medicine, make it likely that by 2050 we will see more walkers than strollers around us. The consequences for our society and its core institutions are profound; we must understand and face them now.

In response to the challenges and opportunities of this trend, the Foundation formed the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society in 2008. This evening we will hear from members of that network of its early findings and their significance for our country.

About MacArthur
The MacArthur Foundation has a long history of addressing complex social problems. Though we are best known for our Fellows program — the so-called "genius awards" — that is a small part of our mission.

We make grants of 230 million dollars a year in the United States and across the world.

But no place is more important to us than Chicago. It is our headquarters and our home. Over the past thirty years, MacArthur has invested nearly 800 million dollars in Chicago. Our grants have supported about a thousand organizations and individuals. We have committed more than 200 million dollars to support community and economic development in sixteen low-income neighborhoods, including a foreclosure prevention and mitigation project to help families stay in their homes and to put foreclosed houses back into productive use. We award more than seven million dollars each year to more than 200 arts and culture groups in the Chicago region, including theatres, dance groups, music organizations, visual art programs, film centers, museums, and libraries.

MacArthur networks on the life course
One of MacArthur’s signature modes of grantmaking has been the interdisciplinary research network — we have funded 35 since 1979. These networks bring together scholars and practitioners with a wide range of expertise and insights to tackle a complex question over several years.

Many of those questions have been about how we structure the course of our lives – what we do in infancy, childhood, youth, phases of maturity, and old age. For example, MacArthur networks have studied early experience and brain development; successful pathways through middle childhood, which highlighted the importance of early education; transitions to adulthood, which looked at the lengthening period after the teenage years; successful midlife development, which produced a major longitudinal survey taken up by the Federal government; and successful aging.

The last of these, the Research Network on Successful Aging, helped spark significant changes in how Americans conceived of the aging process. The network's research showed how, in old age, behavior became at least as important as genetics and how healthy lifestyles, exercise, and engagement improved mental and physical performance. Rather than seeing the latter years as a period of decline and dependency, the network drew attention to the potential that people have to make a positive contribution well after their sixties or seventies.

Aging Network
That network was led by Dr. Jack Rowe. Its signal success prompted us to turn to him again as we considered how changes in life expectancy would affect our society and its institutions. The Network on the Aging Society began its work in 2008, with Jack as chair. Last December, a Network study released some startling findings.

We were aware that life expectancy had increased. Over the past century the U.S. average life span has climbed from forty-seven to seventy-seven years, with no sign of stopping. And something unprecedented may be ahead – an increase in the maximum possible lifespan. That could make a century of life a regular, rather than an exceptional, phenomenon.

A key early finding of the Network on the Aging Society was that official government projections for longevity are probably too low. Americans may live 3.1 to 7.9 years longer than policymakers have expected. And that has considerable repercussions.

The fabric of American society — our cities, houses, workplaces, retirement plans, and medical system — were designed for a different age structure, with many more young people than old. A society with an inverted age pyramid will create a heavier burden for younger people, and could lead to intergenerational tensions. The disparities and inequalities that already exist could be exacerbated, as minority populations, younger and poorer, see their prospects reduced. And there are serious implications for America’s fiscal health, as spending on entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare takes up an ever-growing share of the federal budget.

To present the network’s important work, we have our chair, Dr. Jack Rowe, who is professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. He is also and former Chairman and CEO of Aetna and a past President of Mt. Sinai Hospital and School of Medicine. Jack will speak briefly about the myths and realities in what we know about aging. He is joined by Jay Olshansky, professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Research Associate at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Their discussion, and then your questions, will be moderated by Judy Graham, health reporter at the Chicago Tribune.

The discussion will be taped for CAN-TV and WBEZ’s Chicago Amplified.

I look forward to a stimulating conversation, and invite you all to the reception that follows just outside the auditorium.

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