A Closed School in Scranton Opens a New Window on Aging

A Closed School in Scranton Opens a New Window on Aging

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Audubon Elementary School in Scranton, Pennsylvania, has long been scheduled for demolition. The school has sat empty for four years ever since mold was discovered in the old building’s basement. 

But mold really isn’t the reason – nor is the leaky roof. This school – my own elementary alma mater, as it turns out – is scheduled for destruction because Scranton is subject to the demographic forces that are shaping the rest of the U.S. and the world. The population is aging and many elementary schools are on the chopping block.

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While talk of “aging” tend to focus on longevity – living longer and healthier by a whopping 30 years from the earliest part of the 20th century – forces of de-population are also at play. It’s true in Asia, led by Japan, Korea, and Singapore; it’s true across Europe, in Germany, Italy, and Spain; and it’s true in the emerging markets, with China, Turkey, and others. In each country we are nearing a population with more people who are older than those who are young. As birthrates fall and life spans increase, the population structure is being turned upside down.

Schools like Audubon are the symbols of population aging. They’re no longer needed after the bulge of baby boomers in the mid-20th century filled them to the brim.  

The data tells the story in Scranton. In the 1950s, the population sat around 125,000. Now it’s down to 75,000. Even more dramatic is the age distribution: There are nearly as many people in Scranton over age 65 as there are under 18. 

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But Scranton can also be a symbol for imaginative and progressive approaches to turn population aging into a strength and a lever for economic growth. With the right strategic thinking, Scranton could become one of the U.S.’s most important “age-friendly cities” – and could harness its age-friendliness as an engine of growth and prosperity.

Such a future for Scranton would be like recapturing the past. Not long ago, Scranton was a darling of the Northeast. Located near New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., the small town of Scranton was a strategic outpost. For a small place it had a huge footprint; leaders saw Scranton’s economic future tied to the interstate system. For a while they were right. But economic growth now isn’t about highways – it’s about demographics. Scranton needs to “pivot.”

If this sounds farfetched, tell that to the people in the north of England, in Manchester and Newcastle. These cities, once the mighty industrial powers of the north, fell hard in the late 20th century. Like Scranton, they had the economic formula right for the past century but when things changed, they took it on the chin.  

Now, despite aging populations and a slugging national economy, Manchester and Newcastle are climbing back on their feet. They’re at the cutting-edge of age-friendly development and they’re set on turning their “pensioners” into active, productive citizens. Scranton: It’s your turn.

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For Scranton, the goal and even the methods would be the same. Scranton could rest its age-friendly development on two pillars:

1: Build out and re-imagine the University of Scranton: For decades the American university has been a place where 20-somethings live, play, and even do a little learning. This model is falling apart for all sorts of reasons; the best universities will re-imagine not only how they provide education but also who their recipients are.  

As adults live out careers that extend for five and six decades, we’ll have to re-think what it means to get an education. Businesses are getting it and are offering all sorts of opportunities for workers to stay relevant and up-to-date. Universities need to get on board. Their ability to attract older students and teach relevant skills will become a competitive advantage in the decades ahead.  

2: Change from ‘best place to retire’ to ‘best place to age’: Every year it seems like U.S. News and World Report or Outside magazine creates yet another list of “best places to retire.” These lists get it all wrong – and the Milken Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, has offered a refreshing alternative to these annual click-bait ad-pushers. Rather than rate golf courses and bingo parlors, Milken evaluates cities based on criteria that enable people to remain engaged and productive in social and economic life.

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Scranton would be wise to see itself through these lenses. The city is at the crossroads of the Northeast and sits alluringly near both New York City and Philadelphia. If it could attract active, productive retirees, it could grow even while birth rates decline.

One can imagine how, if Scranton already had these developments underway, it could have saved the Audubon school and repurposed it – perhaps as a “dorm” for older adults off-campus and away from the collegiate foolishness; perhaps a shared workspace for older entrepreneurs. With a little creativity and the right thinking about the possibilities of age-friendly growth and development, the options are nearly endless, not just for Scranton but for other cities and locations as well.

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Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.