Can baby boomers help usher in a sustainable future?
By John ElkingtonI
I have met a surprising number of robots in Japan, including Sony’s robotic dog, Aibo. And one thing I have been told repeatedly is that the Japanese obsession with robots is partly fuelled by a concern that the aging of the country’s population will trigger huge demand for elder-care, which people would very much prefer was met by robots than by immigrant workers.
True or not, a recent robotics fair in Japan featured humanoid waiters, mechanical arms and robotic wheelchairs. You might wonder whether we will see a future where robots farm the elderly, doing everything from lifting them in and out of bed through to reading their faces to know what they are likely to want next?
Like many Baby Boomers, I have no thoughts of retirement, imagining at least another 15-20 years of useful work. But I am increasingly concerned about the impact of the aging trend on society’s willingness to take on the sort of transformational economic, technological and social changes that will be required to shift the global economy onto a more sustainable footing. The ageing of the Baby Boom generation could not only herald growing strains on health care, housing and pension systems, but also — even more alarming — a fading of the appetite for transformational change. Unless, that is, society keeps elders active and involved.
The upside is that there will be exciting opportunities both to use new business models to meet the needs of the over-50s and, at the same time, to mobilize the knowledge, skills, experience, contacts and financial resources of retirees and those moving towards retirement.
The implications of an aging society should be particularly important for businesses committed to corporate responsibility (CR), yet they do not yet appear to be integrated into the wider CR agenda. This is pretty much analogous to where the disability issue was on the CR agenda 15-20 years ago. A quick review of the websites of major CR organizations shows little material — and few initiatives — on ageing. There has been very little attention paid, so far, to creating a responsible business approach to an ageing society.
Business must work out how to use older workers to the best effect. German auto-maker BMW decided to staff one of its production lines with workers of an age likely to be typical at the firm in 2017, for example. At first “the pensioners’ line” was less productive. But BMW brought it up to the level of the rest of the factory by introducing 70 relatively small changes, such as new chairs, more comfortable shoes, magnifying lenses and adjustable tables.
Whether or not any — or all — of us end up being cared for by robots, the time has come to create the pre-conditions of an ‘Ageless Society’, where age is no great issue. In the ideal win-win-win outcome, we would help counter the natural tendency of older people to resist change, boost the resources available to leading change-makers, and help emerging sustainability solutions to evolve and scale.
About John Elkington
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