Inclusive growth and the challenge of population ageing

28 May 2012 by Simon Biggs

The coming together of inclusion, notions of sustainable growth and population ageing creates an opportunity to re-think existing assumptions in social policy. Inclusive growth, for the purpose of argument outlined below, is taken to mean a form of cultural adaptation that maximises benefits to older citizens and the contribution of older adults to an intergenerational society.


This has been brought into sharp focus by two initiatives by the Australian Government: the long awaited response to the Productivity Commission’s ‘Caring for Older Australians’ and the series of recommendations arising from the Treasury’s Advisory Group ‘Releasing the Economic Potential of Senior Australians’.

The current challenge to us, both as individuals and as a society can be boiled down to two elements: how can we adapt to a changing demographic and how can we release the generational capital locked up in the promise of a long life?

Rethinking a long Life
As part of the task of re-thinking, the following key components would play an important part:

Cultural Adaptation 
The challenge of an ageing population is a cultural as well as a demographic one. Successful adaptation to these new circumstances will affect our organisations, intergenerational relationships and the identities made available to older adults. participating in society, and therefore what is seen to be excluded, in poverty and to lack social capital.

A Stretched Lifecourse. The main thrust of the debate as been to shift expectations of later life from a time of dependency to one of productive ageing. An alternative might be to think of a long life producing a ‘stretched lifecourse’ where each part is expanded rather than one (work alone) dominating the latter years.  This stretched-ness would also extend to looking at patterns of work-life balance throughout the lifecourse Especially if this can be brought into line with the changing life-priorities made available by a long life.

Changing the age of retirement also has a life-course dimension, both in terms of the time it takes to change direction and in fairness of opportunity between generations. And while, historically, we are likely to see an older, richer, fitter majority population, a significant minority can be expected to be both poor and marginalised in later life. This occurs at the same time as growing concern about where an aged-care workforce is going to come from.

Generational Capital 
Indeed, the debate on responding to a long life, whether by seeing a stretched lifecourse with multiple forms of contribution, or as what has been labelled a productive solution of working longer, are really both attempting to answer the question: in what ways can we release the social capital of a mature life? This challenge I have called releasing ‘generational capital’.

The little diagram below attempts to express how a ‘virtuous circle’ of releasing social capital accrued by older adults, generationally intelligent policies and social identities, might lead to sustainable intergenerational relations, and in so doing release novel forms of social innovation. These forms of cultural adaption would be well suited to a global generational environment which is increasingly interlinked.

A ‘Virtuous Circle’ for Releasing Generational Capital.

This is offered as a heuristic, although as ever the devil will be in the detailed application.

Generational intelligence refers to the degree to which one becomes conscious of self as part of a generation, the relative ability to put oneself in the position of other generations, and be able to negotiate between generations. 

Intergenerational Sustainability refers to solutions that endure over time, contain the ambivalence of intergenerational relations, and recognise age-diversity Cultural Innovation can come from the very act of adaptation, generating new services and products for older Australians, but also through the enterprise of older Australians themselves as their contribution becomes recognised and refined. Each would contribute to a cultural project that requires change in social attitudes, organisational cultures and structural re-alignment if the opportunities associated with an ageing society are to be fully realised.

Opportunities for Inclusive Growth
A number of factors occur, arising from a longer life that may contribute to a re-positioning of mature adults in wider society and their contribution in relation to inclusive growth. These would include:

At least in the view of this author, solving the problem of cultural adaptation should not simply assume that a longer life equates to more work from a surplus pool of older workers.  The discovery of new roles via the combination of recognising discontinuity in existential life-priorities,  a broad based contribution, distinguishing life-priorities, social and economic contributions would form a significant part of the adaptive process.

A longer and more flexible working life Would play its part, including the development of age-friendly working environments and increased recognition of the the right mix of roles and expertise that both younger and older workers can bring.  As can volunteering and community contributions. While research on the uptake of voluntary activities is mixed, there is little doubt that many older adults make a valuable contribution through voluntary community engagement via their enhanced social skills. : Contributions to Caring and family cohesion require recognition and support. Redesigned Environments, Design and Construction opportunities, the development of New Markets, and recognising the positive role of Intergenerational transfers will all play their part.

The two new Australian Government initiatives are just the beginning of a process, the vision of which will inspire hope for many older Australians. The trick will be to find complementary and negotiated roles between generations rather than relying on the ‘more of the same’ debate around either work or decline.

This paper outlines ideas elaborated in the following academic papers: 

Biggs, S. (2004) New ageism: age imperialism, personal experience and  ageing policy. In Daatland, S-O. & Biggs, S.  Ageing & Diversity. Bristol: Policy. 95-106

Atsushi, S., Biggs, S. & Sargent, L. (2012) organisational  adaptation and  human resource needs for an ageing population.  46-50 In Beard, J.R., Biggs, S., Bloom, D.E., Fried, L., Hogan, P., Kalache,A.  and Olshansky, S.J. (2012) Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise? Geneva: World Economic Forum

Biggs,S., Carstensen, L. & Hogan, P. (2012) Social capital, lifelong learning and social innovation. In Beard, J.R., Biggs, S., Bloom, D.E., Fried, L., Hogan, P., Kalache,A.  and Olshansky, S.J. (2012) Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise? Geneva: World Economic Forum

Biggs S, Haapala I and Lowenstein A (2011) Exploring Generational Intelligence as a Model for Examining the Process of Intergenerational Relationships. Ageing & Society 31(3): 353-371.

Moulaert, T. and Biggs, S. (2012) International and European Policy on Work and Retirement: reinventing critical perspectives on active ageing and mature subjectivity Human relations (in press)

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