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McKinsey Health Institute Analysis Shows Importance of Purpose & Engagement for Aging Well

Analysis shows older adults are happier and healthier when they engage more in society—and helping them do so could benefit the economy.


A recent McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) survey of adults aged 55 and older across 21 countries finds purpose and meaningful engagement are keys to aging well. It found that having purpose in life and meaningful connections with others were among the most important factors bolstering the health of older adults around the world. Respondents frequently cited personal fulfillment and social connection as primary motivators for working or volunteering. What were also deemed important were lifelong learning and participation in community organizations or activities.


These findings all align with the concept of “societal participation,” defined by MHI as “consistent involvement in deliberate activities that lead to meaningful engagement with one’s society and community.” This covers activities that older adults can pursue in their communities such as working, volunteering, pursuing lifelong learning, or participating in community activities. Through these activities, older adults can fulfill many of the factors that influence their health—from finding purpose to connecting with others and staying active.


The topic of societal participation is becoming increasingly relevant at both global and local levels and is frequently discussed as a core component for healthy aging agendas. The UN Decade of Healthy Ageing lists “ability to contribute to society” as one of its five functional ability domains required for healthy aging. Similarly, the National Academy of Medicine’s Global roadmap for healthy longevity outlines eight long-term goals to aspire toward, four of which relate to enabling societal participation of older adults.


By 2050, the number of people over the age of 65 is expected to grow from 9.4 to 16.5 percent of the world’s total population. At the local level, rural-urban divides will increasingly present countries with the challenge of balancing equitable aging experiences. Solving for societal participation in our local cities and communities will be essential for building a future society where healthy aging flourishes—no matter where someone lives.


Why does societal participation matter?

Societal participation can be good for older-adult health. Among MHI survey respondents, those who participated in societal activities had a 4 to 8 percent uplift in overall perceived health compared with those who didn’t participate but wanted to. This finding aligns with existing literature. MHI analyzed more than 70 recent, peer-reviewed academic studies on the societal participation of older adults and found six thematic health benefits: reduced mortality rates; reduced cognitive disability; less functional disability and frailty; decreased loneliness and depression; increased physical activity levels, and enhanced meaning and quality of life.


Some of the strongest evidence to date comes from the decades-long Harvard Study of Adult Development. “The people who were the happiest, who stayed the healthiest as they grew old, and who lived the longest were the people who had the warmest connections with other people,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard study and author of The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness (Simon & Schuster, January 2023) in an interview for McKinsey’s Author Talks series. “In fact,” he said, “good relationships were the strongest predictor of who was going to be happy and healthy as they grew old.”


In addition to strong relationships and sense of purpose—priceless commodities in and of themselves—there is an economic benefit to societal participation. MHI estimates an almost US $6.2 trillion7 annual GDP opportunity across the 21 countries surveyed in our Global Healthy Aging Survey. This equates to an average uplift of approximately 8 percent if we could enable older adults who said they want to work but aren’t working to reenter the workforce. For the United States alone, this translates into a US $1.7 trillion opportunity (or 7.2 percent of 2021 GDP).


The potential impact on national economies could be substantial. And this is not even taking into account the contributions of older workers today—21 percent of the total workforce in higher-income economies today consist of workers aged 55 and older.


The MHI survey results also estimate that the 55-and-older population contributed almost 73 billion hours of volunteering across the countries sampled. Addressing the unmet demand for volunteering could potentially add more than 103 billion hours per year to this figure.


Barriers to societal participation

The MHI Global Healthy Aging Survey identified “difficulty landing a job” (49 to 66 percent of respondents) and “lack of attractive opportunities” (39 to 54 percent) as the most commonly cited barriers older adults faced when seeking employment. For those seeking volunteering opportunities, the most commonly cited barriers were “lack of attractive opportunities” (33 to 44 percent of respondents) and “health concerns” (16 to 40 percent).


In addition to these findings, MHI’s literature review identified several societal barriers and misconceptions impeding progress for older adults seeking opportunities to get involved, including ageism and inequitable access to opportunities.

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