Silver-Tsunami: Getting swept away by alarmist metaphors

Can we just agree that alarmist adages are, for the most part, counterproductive?

When undertaking research for MaRS’ recent Series on Aging, it was unpleasant how many times I came across the term “silver tsunami,” as if likening the aging population to a crippling tidal wave was an accurate metaphor for Canada’s demographic.

Fine, it’s catchy, I’ll give you that.  But I find this foreboding phrase irresponsible since it only serves to perpetuate an ageist culture.  The thought that a swelling silver-haired brigade will soon wreak havoc upon “the rest of us” is not helpful in informing an issue that is already poorly understood.  That’s part of what our aging series attempts to address.

After MaRS held the first Business of Aging conference in 2009, focused mainly on the market implications and opportunities of the aging population, the event returned in its second iteration with an entirely different focus: Social innovation.  The mandate: Innovating public services to better meet our demographic needs.  In other words, the event set out to address ways in which we can redesign our service delivery models to mitigate what’s expected to cause catastrophic strain on our social system.

Many conferences succeed at disseminating the “Why” we need to innovate.  But with innovation no longer being a fringe concept, this approach runs the risk of being redundant, or seen as preaching from the “camp of the obvious.”  The harder task is to convey “How” to innovate, since there really isn’t meant to be a road map for this (although, rest assured, there are people working on it).

To best convey the “How,” we designed the Series on Aging event with the intent to be provocative, rather than prescriptive.  The event mixed traditional models of knowledge sharing (think: keynote address) with new modes of storytelling, such as a rapid-fire interview session (instead of a panel) and digital vignettes to augment a presentation of case studies from the UK – a “virtual tour” of best practices.

The audience was forewarned: This is not a day of passivity – a natural result of the classroom-style conference setting.  Rather than just hearing from the “experts,” this was about reflection, peer learning and co-creation.  The audience left their thoughts behind – literally, by sticking big ideas to the walls of our “collective brainstorm” room.  By the end of the day, the walls were covered in colourful Post-Its like an offline wiki of sorts.

The results were encouraging.  Here’s the round-up of big ideas.

  • The “Aging Issue” needs a re-framing.  Fifty really is the new forty, so how are we supporting this group?  As a first step, we should favour pro-age terms, like the UK’s “Third Age,” instead of “older age.”
  • Involve seniors in the design of services meant for them.  The case study that we did on Participle, a design agency that creates “the next generation of public services” exemplified that best.  Co-founder Charles Leadbeater says “we design programs with, not for people.”  Their program Southwark Circle is being touted as a model for future services across Britain.  Along the same lines: Nesta’s Age Unlimited program, which lets the community pitch and develop its own program ideas.
  • Make collaborating for greater impact a reality.  Non-profits that share the same mandate should consider mergers instead of continuing to compete for the same funding.  The example here: AgeUK, a successful merger between Age Concern and Help the Aged.
  • The pressure to innovate should not only fall upon the sector to refresh their delivery model, but funders must look at doing the same.  Suggestions ranged from having a flexible model for funding smart scaling (as opposed to something new) to looking at new grant criteria, like mandating an intergenerational component or collaboration.
  • We need to be more strategic in program selection and make sustainability a priority. The idea here is that we’re really good at starting things – but bad at keeping them going after the one-year mark.  Moreover, scale the examples that work well, like the VIP veterans program.
  • Policy leadership is necessary for a higher compliance rate.  So many great initiatives aren’t adopted because we’ve failed to successfully implement them as policy.

There was clear consensus that we’ve got what it takes in Ontario – the ingenuity, innovators and working models.  Also, that we know the research and it’s time for action.  Scrapping terminology that calls to mind a natural disaster would be a good start.  If we shifted our thinking about an aging population from being a deficit to a dividend, chances are we can ride this “wave” instead of being washed up, helpless victims.

Check out the media from the event below, or visit the event page here:

Lisa Torjman

Lisa manages social innovation projects for the Social Innovation Generation (SiG@MaRS) program at MaRS. See more…