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Public Education for Seniors?

AI-generated image of an older woman raising her hand  in a primary school classroom
Midjourney: a senior woman dressed like a 10 year old girl raising her hand in an elementary school classroom

By 2035 there will be more seniors than children in the United States. The trend is similar around the world.

This will be a profound moment in human history with far reaching consequences – some that we can foresee, and many we cannot.

What’s a certainty is that people over 65 will be a force within society longer than we are currently prepared for. So how can we turn this challenge into an opportunity? Well first, let’s face two facts that this moment will present.

Two line plots on the same axes. One shows the growth of populations over 65. The other shows the decline of populations under 18. They cross each other in 2035
By 2035 there’s projected to be more people over 65 than children

Overpopulation doom? Nah…

First the good news. In decades past, when boomers were booming and populations were exploding around the world there were projections of doom & gloom for an overcrowded planet. And while populations are still climbing they’re doing so at much slower rates, and will eventually plateau and decline. This affords us some breathing room to design sustainable societies, if we also understand and account for the fact that the demographic make up of the population will be much different.

40 is the new 30

If you’re rocketing towards middle age (or deeply immersed in it like myself) then you can be happy that you’re getting younger compared to the population at large. This may sound like good news. But it also means that we’ll be working to support more older adults as time goes on, known as the old-age dependency ratio. Perhaps this is offset by the fact that there will be fewer children to support. But unless we rearrange our societal institutions and budgets we’ll be caught flatfooted to adapt.

Rethinking public education

Society created public education for a variety of reasons. Chief among them, to equip kids with the knowledge and social skills they’ll need to be successful in life. It turns out that we’ll be living through an era soon where our seniors will have similar needs.

Finding themselves without the knowledge and skills to participate in our technology-connected world, seniors are becoming more and more isolated, putting their physical and mental health at risk.

It’s a problem that, if left unattended, will pose great emotional cost to the people to whom we owe the most, and massive fiscal cost to us personally as taxpayers.

Proactive solutions to societal problems, like organised education, are always more cost effective than reactive solutions, like healthcare. So though the idea of public education for seniors may sound weird, perhaps its time for us to begin thinking about designing institutions that will prepare our parents and grandparents to be happy and healthy as they live longer lives.

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