Around the world, people are ageing.  The phenomenon is more marked in the developed world.  In Europe and focusing on The Netherlands specifically, the average age of the population has gone from 71 in 1960, to around 81 in 2014.  This trend has been seen in many countries around the world and has led to an increasing number of policy decisions on how to better support and utilise this increasingly significant population.  For example, ‘The silver economy’ as a concept is more positive than traditional concepts of ageing, that tend to focus on the simple provision of care and support to the elderly community.  The silver economy as a concept, focuses on how economically significant the +65 age group can be.  Could the significance of 'silvers' in the future lead to a change in how we treat and support people as they age?  Could policies and attitudes to ageing become more nuanced and lead to increasingly diverse ways in which this group can contribute and support local and national economies?

To help understand the Silver economy better and the opportunities and challenges it could present in the future, we analysed some of the current research around the concept - specifically in the Netherlands.  This gave us a clearer idea of what trends and insights currently surround the silver economy and ageing in general.  The analysis also allowed us to produce a ‘topic map’ that summarised these trends as well as low frequency ‘outlier’ trends and insights of general interest to the silver economy and ageing (for the method on how this was conducted please see - The silver economy in Holland a data driven Horizon scan).

As the topic map above illustrates, despite the positive opportunity the Silver Economy represents, the data gathered in this analysis suggests that a lot of the current data and research mostly focuses on the current constraints, costs and concerns around ageing in general.  To understand this further, we’ve broken each theme down into specific narratives based on the data collected (using the most frequently occurring keyword themes as a means of prioritising them).

  1. Care

Society will see continued demand for care for ageing populations.  With an ageing population there will be considerable demand around how and where care is provided.  What constitutes ‘care’ can be quite varied for an ageing society, social support and welfare provision will continue to be important for the ‘early aged’ (the silvers in the 65-75 age range) but becoming more chronic and concerned with the provision of long-term-care and geriatric medicine for the ‘older aged’ (+75 years).  

There will continue to be considerable speculation around how care is provided to ageing communities.  In addition to the type of care, there is considerable discussion around different processes of care delivery.  For example, across Europe there are very different models for how and where care for ageing people is delivered.  In many countries, there are models of ‘familism’ in which individuals provide direct care for their ageing parents and relatives by often having them live in their own homes together (as is the case in countries like Spain and Italy). Other countries like the UK and Holland, tend to base care on state-based models, with ageing individuals more likely to have to fund (with or without state-support) their own care requirements, which are provided by state, or state-subsidised care workers.  Across the developed world there are many different variations mostly between these two sources of funding for care - a continuum of care between the individual and the state.

Deductions for the silver economy.  Ageing is a complex process.  As a person ages their care needs will change and diversify as people go from ‘younger’ old age, to advanced ages.  At present, many nation states, including Holland, use well established social care and pension models to address these costs.  How resilient are these models for the future?  How could they be improved to reflect the increasing health and longevity of people post retirement age (65+)?  Could the silver economy represent a new employment sector for adults in traditional retirement age?  Could such communities be better incentivised and empowered to organise care systems more efficiently and in more beneficial ways than state-controlled systems that treat all members of the 65+ community with a dated, one-size fits all policy?

2.  Health

Health care needs will continue to diversify for an ageing economy.  As our knowledge of medicine and technical solutions to health care problems become increasingly sophisticated, the health care needs of ageing populations are continuing to diversify.  This trend does increase the health and well-being of the average person, as lifestyles become generally healthier and care continues to improve (as reflected in increasing life expectancies).  This also creates questions around how people can age more healthily; for example, could such a trend enable people to grow old in manners that see all of the many different components of their health addressed? As well as the clinical and functional needs of health, can the increasingly important issues of social care and mental health (especially loneliness and isolation in ageing communities) be more specifically addressed?  Additionally, how will issues such as dementia (projected to continue to dominate health care provision) and other chronic diseases be addressed over time to help promote healthier ageing?

There will be considerable demand to address the health care costs of ageing in the future.  As people continue to live longer lives, the demands to access health care will continue to grow as more treatments are available and people requirement them for longer periods of time. Technology will represent a potential response to address some of these costs, for example, loneliness (a common concern for many ageing communities) can be addressed more rapidly today and in the future using community based initiatives and increasingly accessible ICT technology.  Additionally, smarter, age-friendly homes can improve how people are supervised for care, potentially making support and care provision in later life easier and more cost effective.  However, as scientific and technological knowledge advance, the need and desire for ‘solutions’ to the ‘problems’ of ageing will also increase.  Such demand is more likely to increase the overall cost of ageing, with insurance, individuals and that state often being the main sources of finance to provide them.

Deductions for the silver economy.  In the Netherlands, and many other European countries, health trends will continue to have significant impact on ageing.  In one sense people are likely to be healthier for longer and lead more active, independent lives.  This could lead to significant empowerment of ‘silvers’, who could remain economically significant greater and greater ages and, again, could represent a significant driver for the silver economy.  In rethinking how silvers contribute their both their economic influence, but also greater available time made possible through retirement schemes based around the 65+ age range, could the young older age represent an important sector for care and organisation of elder care (+75 age ranges)?  Such considerations could be important especially for countries like Holland because, as health care demands and access become increasingly diverse and complex, the financial burden imposed on the state to provide current levels of care could be highly significant for the future.

3. Service Provision

Do current services meet the needs of an ageing society?  Within the data there is a general reflection that the requirement to support an increasingly ageing society represents a future challenge on current infrastructure and services.  People are living longer, but social and health care models are not, generally, changing to reflect this.  At the global level, this is seen as a considerable discussion surrounding who should provide care - is it the state, is it the individual or their families?  At the national level (in countries like the Netherlands and the UK) debates often centre on how these services are provided, generally with the state being on one end of a spectrum and private health insurance becoming increasingly significant at the other with family care and volunteer services somewhere between these two options.   In such debates, there are often long-held cultural assumptions that the state or the individual ‘should’ provide care.  Due to the polarity of such beliefs and a lack of clarity of who should be providing care, there can often be significant gaps that older individuals can fall through when questions of ‘who should be providing care’ are not addressed.  In some countries, the state picks up the burden, in others the vulnerable, and the aged who require the most support can sometimes be left with nothing.  Is this the best way?

How could models of service provision change?  Currently, a high level of care in many countries is provided by either cheap, unskilled labour (often fulfilled by migrant workers) or volunteers and family members. Family support as a model of social care could change in the future should traditions around shared generational housing (and the general cost of housing) change, additionally, as family size decreases (a generally accepted trend of development) and general costs of living and housing rise, will future generations be less disposed to the direct provision of family care?  As well as family, a considerable proportion of unskilled care provision is often undertaken by migrant workers.  How does this impact on future service provision, if political isolationism (seen in policies such as Brexit, or current US policies on immigration) means that migrant workers are less supported in a developed country? A significant proportion of the labour required to deliver care services to the silver economy could be reduced.   Additionally, in some countries (especially those with poor national economies) there is currently a considerable shortage of skilled and unskilled paid healthcare providers as they seek better employment opportunities abroad.

Deductions for the silver economy.  A more nuanced awareness of ageing and the benefits initiatives like the silver economy could provide represent a significant opportunity for service provision, for both ageing individuals and the state.  At present, it is often the informal, volunteer and charity sectors that addresses many of the gaps in welfare provision for the ageing society, perhaps reflecting the significant differences in care models from the state and the individual.  Could the silver economy represent a way of organising the informal provision of care for greater benefit to the individuals and local economy?  For example, could the contribution of the newly retired (who often contribute to the volunteer sector for elder care) represent an important demographic for the organisation, management and delivery of many aspects of care to the older aged - especially for social support?

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4. Ageing

People will continue to age, but perhaps more healthily.  As scientific advances continue to drive longevity and health improvements and as society becomes more educated on healthy behaviours it is likely that people will continue to ‘age well’.  As a result the average age of the population is likely to continue to increase in the developed world and life expectancy is likely to continue to rise.  Male life expectancy is likely to improve, with men living on average, slightly longer, although women are still likely to live longer in the future.  This is mostly driven by changes in behaviour and an increasing awareness of how to stay healthy.  However, as society progresses, the issues of ageing - such as dependency and frailty will become increasingly important to address to keep people fully healthy for as long as possible. Additionally, the psychological impacts of ageing will become as important as the physiological ones, with issues such as loneliness and mental health becoming increasingly important to address.

Deductions for the silver economy - addressing frailty and reducing dependency could be significant ways in which the silver economy could help address some of the current challenges and costs of the ageing process.  Addressing how frailty arises in older people could have a significant impact on the health and quality of later life and potentially reduce the level of unnecessary hospitalisation and institutional care.  This, in turn, can help reduce dependency on the state for the continued provision of care but, more importantly, help improve the quality of life as people move into advanced ages.  Could the resources and skills of the generations that constitute the silver economy enable a fresh look and a new approach for care provision that provides both more sustainable care models but also a healthier ageing process?

5. Pensions

Retirement age is likely to increase in the future.  People are likely to live for longer, as a result it is likely that most countries will need to increase the age of retirement.  How countries do this will see considerable variation, many will increase the age of state pensions and retirement through a gradual process that reflects the gradual increase of average age in the population.  However, change is not likely to occur at a pace that reflect this distribution of economically productive populations and the continued perception that the young are working to pay for the retirement of their elders.  This is a challenging perception, often driven by demographics, for example, in the Netherlands ‘baby boomers’ account for 28% of the national population and middle aged groups (those between 35-44) account for 12%.  As a result, is it likely that less people will be working more to sustain those older than them in progressively longer periods of retirement.  Does this represent a significant argument for more nuanced plans and policies surrounding retirement?  How could this relate to pension schemes in the future?

Deductions for the silver economy - could the silver economy represent a new way of thinking about retirement and pension provision?  How many people currently retired devote a significant proportion of their time and resources to volunteer services to help people older than themselves?  Is it possible that the silver economy could represent a new form of employment for the newly retired and younger generations alike in a combined generational effort to build better economies around the realities of care provision to an ageing society?

6. Data

There are considerable differences in how different countries address ageing.  At present it is clear that there are considerable differences at the state level in how different countries provide pensions and services for ageing populations.  To improve and provide better forms of sustainable care, a comparison of different national systems could illustrate how different models, from volunteer to family care, through to fully state-based care are provided.  Such research could allow a better understanding of how to adapt current policies to better and more economically reflect the needs of increasingly ageing human populations.

What data exists on ‘silvers’?  The notion of the silver economy relies on people living longer and healthier lives and the assumption that many of these people would either want to give up their retirement years to continue to work and/or continue to have significant economic influence?  Is this this case?  How real and influential is the silver demographic?

  As a 70 year Billionaire could Donald Trump be the champion of the Silver Economy? Image from

As a 70 year Billionaire could Donald Trump be the champion of the Silver Economy? Image from

Implications for the silver economy - presently the silver economy is an idea.  Its potentially enticing on a lot of levels.  At a basic economic level, silvers represent a significant source of spending power and an increasingly significant market.  In more abstract, policy terms, such economic potential could help address the increasing costs of ageing but also help provide greater employment opportunities for people longer into their lives.  But, is this the case?  Do newly retired people want to continue work, do they want greater employment opportunities or have they not worked enough?  Additionally, how many of this demographic actually do contribute to informal care and the volunteer sector - data on informal care is limited and often hard to collect.  To understand what the silver economy could be and how it could benefit society generally, more data is required to understand, how and if it can be applied.

Final thoughts on the silver economy

The silver economy as a concept seems to present a variety of different opportunities and challenges. Its promise is enticing and could reflect how ‘silvers’ have benefited from more consistent economic conditions that have limited other younger generations.  Could the economic and political influence of silvers change how we think about social care in the future, leading to more nuanced ways of responding to the increasingly complex demands of ageing? 

However, when thinking about the silver economy and how it could help drive more sustainable ageing, it’s worth remembering that a number of assumptions have been made surrounding how and who delivers such care in current systems.  At present, care for ageing populations tends to be delivered through a range of different providers - from informal family care (generally provided by women), the state (often underpinned by migrant workers) and volunteers (often themselves of retirement age).  The silver economy could represent a useful policy initiative to help co-ordinate and better resources such informal and formal systems. However, to avoid such a policy being overly aspirational and out-of-touch with the community it is seeking to support more data is required to understand how such a policy of empowerment could help people ageing.  

A recent example of a similar policy is the ‘Big Society’ that was implemented in the UK without the full research into how and who it could benefit.  This policy was based on the assumption that people would volunteer to fulfil the need for a wide variety of service providers without understanding the scale required to do this, could the silver economy suffer from such similar assumptions?  

As a concept the silver economy is enticing, but what is the appetite amongst the newly retired and how would it be delivered to address and support the current service providers, and most importantly, the elderly (and silvers) alike?

This research was delivered to inform an event in December 2016 organised by Future Consult for the Dutch Rijkswaterstaat that helped understand early warning signals for the silver economy in Holland.