SNV Story No. 9: Ageing also takes place in the mind

A profile of standardization expert Professor Raymond Saner

What do you think of when you hear the term “elderly person”? A lonely man wearing a tie and hat, sitting on a park bench all day long? Or a friendly grandmother baking apple cake with her grandchildren? A 60-year-old work colleague who still cannot use the new software properly? Or a 70-year-old with a purple-dyed punk haircut and leather jacket, hitting the open road on his motorbike? That last image was not what came to your mind, was it? We spoke with Professor Raymond Saner about ageing, social conventions and his work as an SNV standardization expert.

Professor Raymond is an authority in many different fields: an honorary professor at the University of Basel (Economics faculty), professor at the University of Lüneburg (environmental sciences), a globally sought-after consultant, expert, partner in research projects at the UN, negotiating expert, moderator and SNV standardization expert. He co-founded the «Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic-Development (CSEND)» with his wife. Above all else, he struck us as a very open and likeable interlocutor, young at heart and speaking a «Basel German» that has lost none of its charm despite his many years spent abroad.

People age differently
We tend to think of elderly people as a homogeneous group – yet they are not. This age category can span up to four decades and thus encompass several generations at once. The image of elderly people is defined by numerous stereotypes and misconceptions. The «elderly» are thereby branded as those people who oppose change, do not want to learn new things, dislike young people, always criticize everything, burden the healthcare system and present criminals with easy and gullible prey. Yet cognitive ageing occurs much earlier than you might think. Our ability to remember already starts to decline from the age of 50, for example, and it also becomes more difficult for us to process information.

Studies have shown that people age very differently. What is encouraging is the fact that with the correct exercises, we can delay or positively influence this process. Train your cognitive abilities – or as Matthias Kliegel, a professorial colleague of Raymond Saner, puts it: «use it or lose it». And when training your memory, please erase the saying «you cannot teach an old dog new tricks» from your vocabulary. Today we know that even centenarians can still learn new things.

Ageing world-wide
Currently, 19% of Switzerland’s population is older than 65; 1.15 million are aged 65 to 79, and 454,000 are aged 80+. There are more women than men in the higher age brackets (Source: FSO). Italy has the oldest population in Europe. Globally, the percentage of the population that is elderly (65+) will be at 16% by 2050. 80% of these seniors will be living in countries with low to medium income-levels (Source: WSIS +15 Virtual Form 2020 organised by CSEND, Outcome Statements). In Japan, one in three citizens is already statistically classed as elderly. Japan has always preferred a homogeneous society and it is therefore no great surprise that robots are already being deployed here to provide care to the elderly. This may seem alienating at first glance, yet despite whatever scepticism we may feel, Japan is at least taking care of its elderly. Professor Saner cites the example of a care home in the USA that drugs its residents into docility to save on staffing costs. «Towards the end of their lives, people are discarded and must endure conditions that are simply not right», Professor Saner reflects.

Ageing-related issues affect society as a whole
There is no one single reason why Professor Saner focuses on ageing; instead, there are at least four. Reason 1: at age 72, he is himself part of the «Graduated Senior Class». Reason 2: his colleagues in Basel who have studied the phenomenon of intergenerational collaboration and its advantages to both age-groups. Reason 3: his work at the UN, where government representatives and NGOs have been holding regular meetings in New York for over 10 years now in order to prepare a convention on the protection of the elderly. Such conventions already exist for children and people with disabilities, but not as yet for the elderly population-group. And reason 4: his Taiwanese wife, Professor Lichia Saner-Yiu. Many of her relatives live in mainland China. There, it is expected that children take unconditional care of their parents, and so there are 240 million elderly people demanding such support from their offspring. This is a colossal figure, as Professor Saner points out, and yet another reason to find clever solutions and technologies for intergenerational co-existence. That is because this burden of expectation is incompatible with the life-plans of many of today’s younger people.

Standardization for the elderly
Professor Saner is bringing his knowledge and experience to bear in the « ISO Working Group 314», set up in 2017. This consists of three areas: «Ageing workforce», «Dementia inclusive» and «Carer inclusive».
His academic interest lies in being able to help shape sustainable standards for the workplace and for the co-existence of the different age-groups. He cites a Swiss study that found that over 23% of employees aged over 65 would like to continue working. This poses fresh challenges for employees and policy-makers. On the one hand, they must prevent older employees from taking younger people’s jobs. On the other hand, it is irrational to disregard the institutional knowledge and experience of seniors. The task is to find new solutions in the constellation of employers-pensioners-workers and also to prepare pensioners for entirely new opportunities. This is where standards come into play. We must not forget that the retired age groups also make a valuable contribution to their country. They continue to vote, pay taxes and keep society functioning with their volunteering work.
The ISO working group has representatives from China and Thailand through to Europe, Canada and the USA. «We are like the UN in miniature», Professor Saner opines. The working group is active as a participant at, and organiser of, conferences in China and Europe, and promotes international dialogue. The University of Venice, which offers a Master’s degree in Ageing, is also a partner. The working group also functions as an advisory body to companies and policy-makers. Professor Saner hopes that specific measures can be implemented in collaboration with companies in future. He is open to any related enquiries.

Culture is acquired knowledge
Alongside new standards, cultural change is also required. In our current society, when elderly people behave in unfamiliar ways, this is often rejected or even sanctioned. Yet many of them no longer wish to conform to the outmoded roles ascribed to seniors. This often leads to conflict, especially in countries with traditional and rigid social conventions. What is needed here is understanding on the part of the younger generation. For example, can one blame a professor if he does not want to spend his retirement serving merely as a childminder to his grandchildren? The generations must engage in mutual dialogue; even if elderly people may at first seem like silent, uninteresting people, they have stories to tell. «It is only when you encourage people to converse that you truly get to know them and their situation», Professor Saner says hearteningly. Interestingly, it is not just physical and mental exercise that keeps us young, but also human interaction and debate. And the longer that elderly people stay fit, the more beneficial this is to society as a whole.

Hopes for the future
When asked what the benefits of ageing are, Professor Saner opines: «Calmness. And I do not just allow myself to be guided by surface appearances any more, but instead tend to focus on the background context when it comes to people and situations.» When talking with him, one senses this reflectiveness on the part of the once typically rebellious member of the 1968 protest movement, and the fact that he has never lost his curiosity. His impressive wall of books attests to the fact that reading and writing are very important to him, and so it comes as no surprise that he was up until 1 a.m., completing his latest manuscript, the night before our Skype call. The fact that he can still – as he himself puts it – get away with this and achieve such things is the result not only of his physical health but also his mental fitness.
Professor Saner’s hope for the future is «that people remember that the future cannot simply be extrapolated from the present. That one entrusts oneself and the elderly with greater creative scope than is currently the case. That people forget outmoded stereotypes and thereby allow themselves to remain open to new knowledge and contribute to finding new solutions in collaboration with their fellow humans». Because, he adds, the world of the future will pose challenges and demand solutions that are unimaginable to us today. Look forward to new mental images.

Our sincere thanks to Professor Saner for giving us his valuable time.

Professor Raymond Saner

He was born in Switzerland in 1947 and is a Swiss citizen. He speaks fluent German, English and French. He holds a doctorate in Social Psychology from the Union Graduate School, Cincinnati, Ohio; a Master’s degree in Education from Lesley University Cambridge; and a BA in Economics from the University of Basel.

Dr Saner has over 20 years’ experience in the designing and management of projects for the development of institutions and the establishment of capacities in the public sector around the world. He has worked as a consultant to European and Asian governments, multinational companies and international organizations, including the United Nations development programme, the World Trade Organization and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Most recently, he worked as a project manager overseeing – among other things – the development of managerial training centres in Russia and institutional reforms in Eastern Europe and South America. As a former lecturer at New York University’s Graduate School of Business, he is currently lecturing on international negotiation at the University of Basel (Switzerland) and previously served a guest professor at INSEAD (France).

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The CSEND is dedicated to finding socio-economic approaches to tackling the new challenges of the coming years and continuing in its role as a pioneer at the cutting edge of social, economic and political innovation.

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