The Golden Years: Addressing the Challenges of an Aging Population

January 1, 2015

[ikon images/corbis]
[ikon images/corbis]

In developed countries, the share of population age 65 or older will nearly double by 2050 to 27 percent, according to figures reported by The Economist. The number of people over age 80 in those countries will more than double during that same time period. For the foreseeable future, it seems, our global society will keep getting older and older.

What about in the United States? By the year 2030, one in every five Americans will be 65 or older, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. If you’re not convinced that aging is a significant trend, then consider these facts. In 1900, less than one in 20 Americans was age 65 or older. By 1970, that number had more than doubled, to one in 10 Americans. And, as already noted, that number will double again, by the time another three decades have passed.

Our aging society is a real phenomenon. The PR profession must adapt, both in practice and in the development of next-generation leaders.   

Be mindful and adapt accordingly

If you have an aging parent or grandparent, then you know aging isn’t easy on anyone. Providing helpful, yet respectful, care can be challenging. The same is true with communicating with older populations, as part of the broad-sweeping practice of public relations.

Those in government, health care and social services are likely to be the most dialed-in when it comes to communicating with older people. But what about your PR team? Do you keep the aging in mind when developing and implementing strategies? Are the tactics you choose appropriate and effective for older members of the community, as well as those who are younger?

AARP advises paying close attention to the kind of communication that works well with baby boomers. Those individuals have begun retiring and will constitute a large part of the older population for years to come.

Understanding boomers’ communication preferences is a good starting point. The Gerontological Society of America cautions, though, that there is a tendency to stereotype and generalize when it comes to thinking about, and communicating with, older people. Be mindful of bias, such as assuming that older Americans are not technologically savvy, or that they are not able to make decisions on their own. Likewise, avoid patronizing language, particularly in face-to-face communication.

What are some other strategies that work well for communicating with older people, and for publics of all ages? Use simple sentence structure, ask open-ended questions, integrate visuals to clarify and reinforce key points, and minimize distractions.

All indications are that the older population in the United States will remain female-dominant, but that the gender gap will narrow over time. In that way, too, your team should not stereotype the older population based on gender. Be sensitive and inclusive. 

Remember that the PR profession will likely shift

Earlier this year, researchers Bruce Berger, Ph.D., and Juan Meng, Ph.D., released “Public Relations Leaders as Sensemakers: A Global Study of Leadership in Public Relations and Communication Management.” The book summarizes a multitude of findings from a 2011-12 study of nearly 4,500 communication professionals from 23 countries.

More broadly, and central to the theme of this column, is what Berger and Meng identified, as far as the demography of our profession, age-wise, among those willing to participate in the global survey. Of the thousands of respondents, 12.9 percent are 55 years of age or older, and 25.1 percent have more than 20 years of experience. As the broader population ages, we must consider the void that will be left behind as PR professionals prepare to retire.

Of course, it isn’t a secret that the graying population will create many challenges worldwide, including the economic challenge of supporting more people with fewer workers. Another significant challenge, though, is what will happen to leadership. Sure, people may be healthier and work longer in their careers than in the past, but gaps in leadership are a real risk.

Are you fully tapping the wisdom of the senior leaders of your team now? Have you put mentoring and leadership development programs and processes in place to ensure that young professionals can effectively step into leadership responsibilities? Are there creative ways for your agency or department to retain older colleagues through part-time employment, step-down retirement plans or contracted consulting?

The aging population has so much to offer and share. Let’s respect and celebrate the older people in our lives, in our communities and in our profession.

David L. Remund, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA
Dave Remund, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is executive director of communications for Drake University. Connect with him via email ( or on Twitter (@remund).


John Senall says:

Thanks for this piece, David. I work a lot with healthcare clients whose consumers are the senior population, and it is vital that every communications professional stays on top of this topic. Today's seniors are not yesterday's in neither communication habits nor lifestyle; and they will not be tomorrow's seniors either. It's a fascinating area and I appreciate you writing this. -John

Jan. 11, 2015

Dr. Steve Iseman APR, Fellow PRSA says:

Interesting article David and one that I suspect lots of folks haven't thought as much about as they should, particularly the aspect related to changes in composition of the public relations profession.

Jan. 11, 2015

Nancy V Mills, APR says:

Thanks for your thoughts David. In my role as caregiver to an 80+-year-old parent, I find government and healthcare to be less than dialed-in to the communication needs of the elderly. While 65-year-olds might be comfortable navigating the Web, I would imagine computer/Internet literacy drops with age. Have you ever tried to find an Rx plan on And what about appointment scheduling and communication with your doctor via online health portals. These are not tools that most 80-year-olds can use. Communicating with the aging population is an ongoing challenge, for sure!

Jan. 13, 2015

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