Age discrimination isn’t legal, but it’s the unconscious assumptions and beliefs that trip us up. This is having an impact on our assumptions about the value of educating someone over the age of 50.
For example, we read a lot of doom-and-gloom prophesizing because of a creaky Canadian health care system and the baby-boom generation that is getting older and, apparently, sicker. This is not only a cliché but also wrong, according to a couple of University of British Columbia studies published in the August 2011 issue of the journal Healthcare Policy.
A study on population aging and determinants of healthcare by Steve Morgan and Colleen Cunningham (from the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research at the University of British Columbia) notes that less than one percent a year was added to medical, hospital, and pharmaceutical spending as a consequence of population aging. As British Columbia’s demographics are reasonably comparable to the rest of Canada, the researchers have postulated that effects of population aging on national healthcare spending to 2036 would be small.
Meanwhile, research by Kimberlyn M. McGrail and four other authors (with the same UBC centre) found that much of the increase in physician spending was due to “internal system dynamics.” In other words, asking for more tests and sending patients to more specialists costs the healthcare system more, regardless of the patient’s age. “The rhetoric of an approaching ‘grey tsunami’ obscures the fact that these increases are occurring on a per capita basis, after adjusting for increases that would be expected simply on the basis of the aging of the population,” said the authors.
Frankly, from everything I’ve read about the current and prospective “seniors” populations, they are the healthiest we’ve had. Yet policy makers and social scientists don’t seem to be talking seriously about the impact that a relatively healthy, active, aging population will have on the economy and the social structure of Canada. After all, it’s possible that a healthy senior might want to retrain for a new career and then start a business or found a civil society organization, or do all of the above – or something else. Not everyone can, or wants to, spend their time pursuing leisure activities. While the ones who want to learn formally may not represent a huge group, it will be larger than those of past generations because of the demographic bulge.
There’s a mythology around aging, and much of that mythology is negative. But, there are a few promising signs that deeply held attitudes about aging are being revisited. A Canada Coming of Age conference – about the policy impact of an aging population, being held in Edmonton in early October – and new research like the UBC studies put the lie to how aging is often represented these days in the media and in popular culture.
And yet, change is slow. For example, the Coming of Age conference didn’t receive a single proposal about education (the presentations are largely focused on retirement and health care issues). The widely used term “lifelong learning” tends to ignore professional-level education. Talk about education for those over 50 and most automatically assume we mean learning as a leisure activity. Much of it is relegated to continuing studies programs. As well, people over 50 are more likely to go to school part-time, and most funding programs don’t support part-time education.
If you’re over 50, you have as much opportunity as anyone else to attend a college or university program – on paper. But how will your application for loans or scholarships be viewed, compared to those of younger applicants for a highly competitive program? If you consider that most of us have more than one job and more than one career in a lifetime, then the 30-year-old applicant for funding is likely to spend the same amount of time in their future career as the 60-year-old applicant.
Common wisdom says you can start over at any age but it sure would help if institutions offered more integrated policies and addressed unconscious assumptions about aging, education, and contributing to society.
Maryse de la Giroday runs Frogheart Communications and writes several blogs, including FrogHeart – a commentary about nanotech, science policy and communication, society, and the arts.