Wednesday, July 13, 2011


The world's population is aging rapidly. In twenty years, one billion of the earth's inhabitants will be 65 years or older. In 40 years (by 2050), four-hundred million people will be over 80 years old. A new book, "Shock of Gray" by author Ted Fishman argues that we have been poorly prepared for the aging of the world's population, and how it will pit young against old; child against parent; worker against boss; companies against rivals, and nations against nations.

Fishman argues that as the ratio of the old to the young grows ever larger, global aging is reaching a critical stage. For the first time in known history the number of people of age 50 will be greater that those under age 18. He says no one has yet grasped the full massive effects this will have on economies, jobs and families.

I was reminded this week of the divergent effects in a couple of announcements from the Mayor of Ottawa Jim Watson, who incidentally turns 50 years old this week. The Mayor wore a helmet and a white tee-shirt on Sunday as he launched Ontario's first fully segregated bicycle lane along the length of Ottawa's Laurier Avenue. Cycling is an important form of recreation and Ottawa has close to 7000 kilometers of bike lanes, paved-shoulders and multi-use pathways. But only 2% of residents regularly rely on bicycles for commuting to work, which is the main mission of the Laurier Avenue initiative.

In business attire two days later, on Tuesday: Citing increasing mobility problems amongst the aged, Mayor Watson retired the last of Ottawa's "high-floor" buses. The city's one-thousand transit vehicles are now 100% so called "kneeling buses," capable of allowing people with mobility problems to roll-on and roll-off. Mayor Watson claims that is a first for any Canadian city. Therein the divergent problems of our modern urban environment. Cities were designed for the young, and we continue to develop and build infrastructure for that purpose. At the same time and all the while, it is the aging "boomers" who are putting the strain on our modern cities. - People are getting old fast, and we're doing it in communities designed for the sprightly.

The size of the aging boom is quite simply staggering. Every day for the next several decades, thousands of baby boomers will turn 65. That is in addition to the oldest-old, the 85-to-90 something, whose numbers have already grown by one-third in the last decade with no signs of slowing. The "New York Times" recently described the phenomenon as a..."silver tsunami (that) will challenge a youth oriented society." Since demographers have been warning about the phenomenon for years, it is shocking how far behind we are. And when any planning and forethought is given to the problem it's almost always viewed as a health issue - Preparing for the coming wave of Alzheimer's / Or as a political liability - When will the social safety nets collapse under the weight?

Cities and suburbs were designed for younger people, full of stairs, cars and now increasingly (it seems) bike lanes. The problem is that as these become more difficult to navigate older people retreat. As the population growth tilts to the majority of people over 50 years old or more, the challenge will be to keep them from retreating by adapting age friendly solutions to modern planning. It seems that we still have some distance to travel along the path...and not one of us is getting any younger.

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