There are currently more than 100 million Chinese over the age of 65, and the number is steadily growing. This change in demographics will have far-reaching consequences for societies around the world. Nancy Morrow-Howell of the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University sees this as a positive trend.

“While a common tendency is to focus on the burdens an aging population will place on a country’s economic and social welfare, an aging society represents an opportunity, not just a crisis.” She notes that “older adults are a valuable source of growth in volunteerism and civic service” and that they “benefit their workplace, increasing experience, stability, and reliability.”

By 2050, older Americans are predicted to make up more than 25 percent of the population. Currently, more seniors are interested in remaining productive, with more than 23 percent of adults 65 and older volunteering in 2008. Morrow-Howell urges social policies to encourage this tendency in older Americans. “The imperative to change policies and expectations about aging in America is based on evidence that ongoing productive engagement produces positive outcomes for older adults, their families, communities and society as a whole,” she notes.

In China, many older adults are already engaged in productive activity, including acting as a caregiver, lifelong learning, volunteer work as well as traditional employment. However, older adults in China and elsewhere often face significant barriers and disincentives to pursuing productive roles. Discrimination against older adults and policies that usher them out of the workforce prevent society from utilizing the human capital of their aging population.

Furthermore, in China especially, there are cultural stigmas attached to older people working. “Chinese people may be reluctant to retire at a later age for fear that it would reflect poorly on their families,” according to Li Zou, international director of the Brown School’s Center for Social Development. “Traditionally, families are expected to take care of their elders after retirement.” In China however, the one-child policy has resulted in four grandparents and two parents relying on only one child for support.

But regardless of the geographic location, keeping older adults from productive roles impacts their health and well-being. Studies have shown correlations between physical and mental health, life satisfaction and longevity and engagement in employment and/or volunteer activities.