Envejecimiento · 23 November 2022

The importance of thinking ahead: are we prepared for long-lived societies?

A few weeks ago I was invited to a session in the Argentine Senate on the Bill to create a bicameral commission to plan for the future. In short, and in a very simplified form, what they propose is the creation of a body dedicated exclusively to preparing for what is to come, analysing and studying trends, possible effects, risks and possible solutions. Some countries and international organisations have already responded to the need (or potential) to anticipate what lies ahead by creating such institutions. This has been done, for example, by the European Commission, the European Parliament, the United Nations, NATO, the OECD and the governments of Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Singapore, among others, including Spain from 2020. Chile has also had a Foresight and Strategy Council since 2014, to give another example in Latin America. This "thinking about the future" seems to me to be key because the creation of an institution dedicated to thinking about foresight would allow, in this case, Argentines to have the capacity for the country to generate knowledge to anticipate the challenges and opportunities of the future.

Participating in a lecture in the Argentinean Senate was one of those enriching and exciting experiences that I will keep with extreme affection and also with pride; the pride of being able to contribute on an issue that will be key for the Argentinean nation, but that also helped me to reflect again on the question of how to prepare ourselves for our old age and for the new long-lived societies. 

These "offices of the future" are neither extraordinary nor excessively modern: in Spain we already had one in 1976, when Adolfo Suárez founded the National Institute of Foresight, which focused on economic, technological and defence issues. It disappeared in 1982 (perhaps they thought they had already reached the future). 

In addition to other reasons, the establishment of research institutions dedicated to analysing, from an interdisciplinary perspective (otherwise it would be of little use), the trends that will mark the future of a country seems to me to be interesting as a way of combating short-termism. What is short-termism? Basically, it is the tendency to act in the short term without thinking about a future that is not immediate. This "urgency for the present" in the framework of action of the different countries is, among other things, encouraged by the political design itself, with short (although sometimes they can be long) legislatures of 4 years. Moreover, policies tend to be highly motivated by the motto "the urgent always displaces the important", which means that we are not able to react quickly enough to the challenges that a changing society brings to the table. 

However, it is not only countries (or political systems) that cannot be blamed for not looking to the future; at the individual level we are very prone to think exclusively about the present and, if anything, the immediate (very immediate) future. In fact, thinking about the future sometimes gets a bad press, as it is associated with anxiety (just as thinking about the past is associated with depression). However, we are "children" of our past just as we are parents of our future. Forgetting both stages can decontextualise us in our own personal history. This is especially important when we think about old age, that stage that is always far away until we are fully immersed in it. 

Not thinking about the future has its psychological logic. Sometimes not looking ahead, even when there is a proven suspicion of a risk, hides a certain optimistic bias, under the idea that "it won't happen to me" and, therefore, I don't need to prepare myself. Sometimes, rather than an optimistic bias, it is even a very negative one: "I am not going to live long enough for preventive action to be necessary". On a national or societal level we have numerous examples in our recent history; the absence of planning and this idea of "this is not going to happen to us" was seen with the pandemic; even when the risk was imminent, the different countries were reactive in taking measures in time and had a hard time preparing for such a reality. But it happens to us on an individual level, I insist. We do not think that we are going to suffer, for example, from a disease, or that we are going to lose mobility over the years. We play with luck here and rely heavily on the present, projecting our future needs from the immediate moment, without taking into account the many changes and challenges that confront us on a day-to-day basis. As if the reality that defines us is immutable. Perhaps it is this lack of acceptance of change that makes it difficult for us to prepare for the future. 

In many of the interviews I have conducted with older people, the interviewees oscillated between a somewhat reticent acceptance of old age (I am old, I am old, I no longer do a certain activity as I did a few years ago) with a denial of the potential future need to, for example, prepare the home for the possible physical changes associated with advancing age. Issues, for example, such as changing the bathtub for a shower. Some people even "aspired" to die before being in a situation where they could no longer lift their leg with sufficient agility and flexibility. Various experts point to this lack of reflection on our future needs, for example, when talking about the resources we will need later on, when we reach retirement. Diego Valero, who works on financial health at CENIE, knows much more about this, so we will ask him about it in future posts.

Returning to the question of foresight and the behaviour of countries, they all face challenges, which may vary according to the idiosyncrasies of the country, but which have a series of common drivers. In other words, there are a series of global trends that will inevitably bring about changes in our societies, such as demographic change (with a growing ageing population), climate change and digitalisation, which is imposing itself on the present, creating (and contributing to) different inequalities. All this affects the labour market, productivity, inequality and the country's living conditions. The question would be to answer the question of how we are going to prepare for it. In my opinion, we need to look ahead, beyond ideologies, beyond parties, because the future is common or it will not be. It must be understood that it is about working towards a future for all and in which we can all fit.

It is not a matter of predicting, of divining the future as if we had a magic ball, of predicting which way the wind will blow, but of analysing the most probable trends so that we can be prepared to act in advance. In order to do this, of course, we need to know and understand. This is one of the principles we follow at CENIE: we must analyse in order to know so that we can act in the best possible way. How to prepare ourselves for our own old age, how to prepare ourselves for social ageing and how to prepare ourselves to be healthier, to contribute more and better to society, but, above all, how to prepare ourselves to live fuller lives during those years we are gaining and which characterise the longevity transition, is key. 

The cicada was unconscious, yes, but we are more easily a cicada than an ant, so sometimes winter (even if it repeats itself year after year) catches us unawares. Let's try to change this habit. The challenges and opportunities of longevity cannot catch us unawares. 


Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal