Mission Possible: Change the Story of Aging

Paul Irving
Paul Irving

In the heart of Los Angeles, the storytelling capital of the world, Paul Irving is busy changing the narrative of aging.

Irving had already spent several years as head of The Milken Institute, a Los Angeles think tank shepherding dialogue on topics ranging from job creation to health and the global economy.

Yet aging so captivated Irving, he took what some would consider a step down the corporate ladder, and last January gave up his presidency to chair the institute’s new Center for the Future of Aging.

Irving sees the future vision of aging as a one-two punch: first, change the stories we tell ourselves about aging, with media leading the way; then, as attitudes change, so will legislation, education, social programs and corporate policies.

“Storytelling is a really important part of culture change.”

So far, the story of older adults in America has succumbed to a youth-obsessed culture, which has painted older adults as second-class citizens draining public benefits without contributing to society. In other words helpless, even worthless citizens.

Irving insists that a new, more reliable story will create a brighter future.

“Older adults are valuable and underutilized human capital,” says Irving. “They bring experience, wisdom and judgment. They mentor younger people. They balance broader society.”

An Aging Summit

Soon after the launch of the Center, Irving organized a summit of thought leaders in the aging field — a veritable who’s who of aging — that spawned last month’s report The Power of Purposeful Aging.

A report summary: as lifespan extends, we’re on the precipice of disaster or opportunity, depending on how we talk about aging.

Thus, offered meaning and purpose, older adults can be one our greatest assets.

“As a society, we tend to believe that each generation is an insular one,” writes former Walt Disney chairman Michael Eisner, “and that the interests of each are unique and separate from those of others. But now more than ever, people young and old must join forces to address problems that affect both of their communities.”

Long a supporter of local social programs, the L.A.-based Eisner Foundation narrowed its focus in 2015 to fund only intergenerational programs.

Attitudes about aging have changed significantly since Irving began his immersion. With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 each day, he says, “Demography is destiny.” He hopes that by the middle of the century, when older adults outnumber teenagers, America will create a society that embraces elders and their contributions.

Irving is author of the 2014 book The Upside of Aging: How Long Life is Chaging the World of Health, Work, Innovation, Policy and Purpose. He also serves as a scholar in residence at the esteemed USC Davis School of Gerontology.

A Lonely Quest

In the past, Irving’s work often felt lonely.

“When I first started doing this I could have stood out on the street with a sandwich board and not get any attention,” he says. “Now I get two to three speaking requests a day.”

And Hollywood has been at the forefront of this dramatic shift.

Sparked by the hit 2011 movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a surprising number of films with older adult protagonists have followed in its wake, including last summer’s The Intern, featuring Robert De Niro as an old school businessman who helps Anne Hathaway navigate the expansion of her online clothing business with his wisdom, insight, patience and compassion.

The center’s report, in particular, calls for new images of aging like these to be presented in media of all types, including news and advertising.

“A story well told can change the world, and media can play a critical role in elevating purposeful aging through effective storytelling,” writes David Linde, CEO of Participant Media. “Stories create awareness, inspire personal action, and promote system-level change. By developing and spreading a new narrative about the potential for older adults to contribute to a better world, we can change attitudes and, ultimately, culture.”

A Business Opportunity

The change can benefit not only older adults, but American business.
Americans 50 and up “hold 83 percent of the U.S. household wealth,” according to the report, “helping shore up bottom lines of industries like financial services, motor vehicles, consumer durable and nondurable goods, health care, and utilities. But the median age in the advertising and public relations industries is under 39 — part of the reason that unflattering stereotypes of older people persist.”

“Many leaders in media really haven’t focused on these demographic changes or opportunities for marketing,” says Irving.

Irving recently gave a talk to the directors of several public companies ranging from financial services to energy, consumer products, and health. He asked these executives several questions. Do you have a longevity strategy? Are you changing your retirement philosophy? Creating intergenerational teams?

Blank stares.

Which is why the Center for the Future of Aging exists. Irving calls it “A powerful connecting tool for leaders, business policy, academia, philanthropy and other domains.”

A Bright Future

Irving insists that the future of aging can be a bright one – for everyone.

“If we can figure out a way to keep people engaged longer, to connect across generations, and utilize the skills of older people in work places, volunteering and education, we’ll have a happier society.”

Irving says positive aging is similar to past movements supporting women, the environment and civil rights.

Meanwhile, the persistence of ageist stereotypes is the ultimate paradox.

“This is the one thing we all have in common.”

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