Aging Populations Research Series, 4: Active aging and forging a paradigm shift

Active aging rhetoric is now widespread in policy as well as everyday life, presenting itself as a magic solution to issues relating to population aging. How did the concept of active aging emerge? And what does active aging really entail? This installment forms part of our research journey into the relationship between aging populations and cities.
by Koko Herder


Life-long learning as part of a more flexible arrangement of the life-course (Source: trbimg.com)

To understand the emergence of active aging discourse and policy practice, we have to see it in relation to social problems that arose as a result of population aging. The demographic transition from relatively young societies to societies where the bulk of people are older has introduced substantial costs. For instance, because of increasing numbers of older people sided with older people living longer, healthcare costs have inflated. Simultaneously, the younger, working cohorts are shrinking, meaning that fewer people have to bear the costs of supporting the growing group of aged people. Policymakers far and wide are required to find solutions to the following question: How do we fund and reduce the costs of aging populations?


Especially since the 1990s, active aging policy has become a common solution to deal with these increasing costs and pressures. As such, interest in active aging has appeared mainly for economic reasons. Sociologists Alan Walker and Tony Maltby argue in their article ‘Active aging: A strategic policy solution to demographic aging in the European Union’ (2012) that in Europe, and across the globe, the emphasis on active aging as a policy paradigm focuses on working longer. As a result, the concept mainly entails a narrow economistic view. Walker & Maltby propose that, instead, the concept of active aging should be recognized as being much broader and much more comprehensive, such as the multidimensional approach to active aging provided by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO’s conceptualization of active aging takes into consideration employment, health and participation. So next to employment and working longer, the WHO also relates activity to health (e.g. physical and mental activity), and social and political participation. But what is most important to note according to Walker & Maltby is that the WHO proposes a life-course approach to active aging. To prevent some of the negative consequences associated with later life and to deal with the increasing societal costs of aging, the WHO argues that it is crucial to foster changes and take preventive measures at earlier stages of the life course. Reducing the load of work during the work life, through for instance part-time work, is such a measure.


Following Geneviève Reday-Mulvey, author of the book ‘Working beyond 60: Key policies and practices in Europe’ (2005), Walker & Maltby promote a paradigm shift of aging. It involves the departure from a ‘traditional’ life-course model consisting of three distinct phases of life – education, work, and retirement – to a more age integrated, horizontally distributed life-course involving work, education and leisure, family and community more flexibly throughout the life-course.

aging populations Image1-ParadigmShift
From a traditional paradigm of aging to an age-integrated paradigm (Source: After Reday-Mulvey, 2005; Walker & Maltby, 2012).

This strategy makes it so people are able to work longer, remain healthy longer, and results in a reduction of health care costs and pressures on social systems. Whereas the former articles of this series on the relation of aging populations and cities focused primarily on the Young-Old and Old-Old as somewhat problematized distinct groups in need of urban adjustments (see for instance my last article), the paradigm shift introduced here rather focuses on extending and increasing the attractiveness of the work life, and as such also reconceptualizes age and potentially reverses the stigmatization of elderly. However, this promising strategy does not take away the issues that have arisen from population aging in cities already, as the older population is already substantial.

So it seems, population aging presents two challenges: (1) making arrangements for existing older populations in cities now, and (2) forging a paradigm shift of aging for the well-being of individuals and a more sustainable social system in the future.

About the author

Koko Herder

Koko is about to graduate from the research master Urban Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Throughout his studies he has tried to combine planning and urban theory with urban design. Drawing inspiration from urban explorations across the world and being fascinated by everyday urban life, Koko encourages participatory and collaborative planning processes. At CITIES Foundation he now researches the relationship between aging populations and cities.


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