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Will we still have to work in the future?




Photo: Leibniz Research Centre at TU Dortmund (IfADo)

This question could be interpreted in a number of different ways. In this case, I have opted for the following interpretation: Will we still have to work in the future so that we don’t get bored?
Influential scientists are unanimous in their message: The future of our society lies with the older generation! In the past hundred years, life expectancy has increased by about 30 years, but we are still making little use of this final period of life. What’s more, today’s 70 year olds are, on average, as healthy and as mobile as the 60 year olds of 20 years ago. It is clear, therefore, that something has to be done to ensure the elderly are adequately challenged and do not end up living isolated existences on the fringes of society.
The following statistics also need to be taken into account: In 2050, almost 40 percent of the population will be over 60 years old, compared with 20 percent today. To ensure that Germany remains an important centre of commerce and industry, we must tap into the potential of older people.
Work is a meaningful part of our lives – it provides stability and ensures people remain integrated in society. It is therefore not a question of whether we will have to continue to work in our old age, but rather what form that work should take. Businesses are displaying an increasing willingness to adapt to older employees, and there is scientific evidence to show that this changing attitude makes sense. Certain core skills develop naturally in old age: social competence, reliability, emotional stability and resilience. However, certain faculties do fade with age, such as short-term memory and the ability to multitask. The degree of age-related cognitive change is dependent on many factors, such as social interaction and, in particular, the sort of activities that people perform on a daily basis. Neuroscientists have shown that it is still possible for the brain to develop and for mental capacity to improve well into old age. This can be achieved through challenging and varied work that offers as much scope for development as possible, and also through leisure activities such as dancing and brain-training exercises that utilise those mental capacities not sufficiently employed at work. Such activities have even been shown to enhance the cerebral processes responsible for key cognitive functions. That means that an important prerequisite for an active, vital old age is lifelong learning – both at work and during free time.
Therefore, the ideal solution would be to alter our current concept of three consecutive phases of life – learning followed by working followed by resting – and instead to foster lifelong learning and the establishment of a work environment that is suited to the elderly.

Susann Beetz of the Ideas 2020 team answered this question in consultation with Prof. Michael Falkenstein, head of the project group “Aging, cognition and work” at the Leibniz Research Centre at TU Dortmund (IfADo).