2012-11-30 08:20:00

Silver-Haired Retirees in U.S., China Can Be Golden Asset

Photo: Epoch Times

SAN DIEGO--I met Old Chen on my way to the airport. An immigrant from Henan Province, China, Chen has been a taxi driver in New York for five years. He seemed happy with his job. His company has a couple of dozen drivers, and some of them are, like him, far from young.

"I do miss China, except for one thing. At my age, I don't think I could find a job there," said Chen, 55.

It was a perfect way to start my trip. Seven hours later, I was in the Convention Center of San Diego, sitting at the annual convention of the Gerontological Society of America, which attracts 4,000 scholars from the United States and around the world.

The topics discussed at the convention ranged from cardiology and Alzheimer's disease to Social Security reform and caregiver support.

In the U.S., though, the average unemployment rate remains at around 8 percent. Workers ages 55 or older have a surprisingly better unemployment rate than their younger peers, 5.8 percent in October, although that level was much higher for senior workers earning less than $40,000 a year. Also, long-term unemployment is far higher for elders – more than a year on average – than for younger age groups, according to AARP.

Still, according to a recent report by consulting firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, nearly three fourth of the 4.3 million jobs created in the past three years went to people 55 and older.

China's Missing Positive Perspective

This is in sharp contrast to China, where 55 is the retirement age in many professions. Often older workers are forced out of their job even before they reach that point.

This is not only about jobs. China is missing out on a crucial perspective on aging. It is a mindset based on "turning the silver into gold" to quote Columbia University sociologist Ada Mui, who has been promoting the concept of productive aging.

With people 60 and older making up more than 13 percent of the total population, China is now officially an aging society, Mui explained. Most of the discussion of this has been focused on the demand for nursing homes, medical services and living stipends for seniors. These are all critically needed in China--but it's not the whole picture.

A positive approach sees seniors as assets rather than a burden and turns their stamina, experience and wisdom into productivity is essential. This perspective was recognized last year by the World Economic Forum report, Global Population Ageing: Peril or Promise?

The U.S., where 14 percent of the population are 65-plus, has been working toward this. Businesses that target older people are increasingly being established. And services cover not only healthcare but also houses, cruise lines, TV shows and matchmaking customized for seniors. There has also been a focus on helping seniors start their own businesses.

Elizabeth Isele, co-founder of Senior Entrepreneurship Works, an organization that puts together training, financial resources and connections for older people who want to start a business, shared a slew of successful stories at the convention.

One is Inez Killingsworth, a former Ohio school janitor who at age 62 started a nonprofit organization to fight against predatory lending and help thousands of families avoid foreclosure. She received a $100,000 Purpose Prize for her work in 2010.

Isele also noted a therapist, age 62,who started a thriving perfume-making company.

Some elders may just want to lie back and enjoy life. Still, it would be a waste to neglect their value. The National Senior Service Corps' Foster Grandparents program sends elders to day care centers and after school programs to share their life stories with kids.

Time for Change in China

Programs like these are scarce in China. Sun Juanjuan, associate professor of the Institute of Gerontology of Renmin University of China, whom I met at the convention, confirmed my concern. "The Chinese have a saying: Let the elderly have things to do. But many healthy seniors who don't need nursing homes have nothing to do. It is time to pay more attention to this," she said.

This may be a new idea even to seniors themselves. Only five years ago, who would have thought our parents could become experts on the iPad and iPhone? Seniors are quickly being modernized. If we don't constantly update the concept of senior services, it may become irrelevant.

Rong Xiaoqing is a New York-based journalist. She is a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellow, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

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