At 43, Jean C. Accius is no senior citizen, but he has a deep understanding of the role older adults play in their families, society, and workplaces. As AARP’s senior vice president for global thought leadership, Accius wants to change how society views and values older adults, embracing “the perspective of being an asset rather than a liability, looking at what they bring rather than what they lack.” His work is focused on closing the gap between how long people live and how long they are healthy.
His timing couldn’t be better. The percentage of older adults in America is increasing, and many are living longer and working longer. The number of Americans who are 65 and older is expected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060, increasing their share of the population from 16% to 23%. Americans’ life expectancy is on track to reach 85.6 years in 2060, up from 79.7 years in 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections. And by 2026, estimates are that more than one in four men over 65 and nearly one in five women over 65 will be drawing a paycheck.
Accius led the creation of AARP’s Living, Learning, and Earning Longer Collaborative, partnering with the World Economic Forum and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, to promote age-diversity in the workforce. In 2021, Fast Company recognized his team’s program, Growing with Age, which aims to harness the benefits of a multigenerational workforce, as a “2021 Game-Changing Idea.”
Accius, who emigrated to the U.S. from Haiti when he was 4, began connecting with older adults when he was a high school student. As a busboy at a Florida retirement community, he made time to listen attentively to the residents’ life stories and reflections. That experience led him to the Florida Department of Elder Affairs and eventually to AARP, where he’s held several leadership roles in the past decade. “I continue to believe — and I’ve seen this in my own life — that there is this value that comes with getting older,” Accius says. “It’s the sense of wisdom, experience, and resilience that comes with age.”
What role does family play in your life story?
Family is very important to me. My grandmother, Anouca, raised me for the first four years of my life in Haiti. I saw her working extremely hard to ensure that I had education, that I was going to school, that I had warm meals to eat. And she did it with her sense of grace. She really did all she could to help me be the person that I am today, and I’m forever grateful for that. She’s 99 and has dementia, but she’s fierce and she’s strong. My grit, my sense of purpose, really originate from her.
My dad and most of his family were in the United States, and he wanted me to have a better life, so he went through the process of getting me here. My mom had made the decision to have my grandmother raise me, and in retrospect, I am extremely fortunate because that gave me a much better life relative to some of my siblings who did not have that opportunity.
I credit my grit and my work ethic to growing up in a Haitian culture where, despite the odds, we would wake up every day and get to work, contributing to provide for family. We supported each other. My wife and I are working hard as parents to teach my children, Christian and Parker, these same attributes. They are my biggest accomplishment and most important legacy.
Are aging stereotypes and discrimination fading as people live longer?
According to the World Health Organization, more than 50% of people around the world hold ageist attitudes. So it’s a cultural shift we need to address and also understand there’s significant value that comes with age and wisdom and longevity.
We’ve been doing surveys every year for the last 20-plus years, and we find, particularly now, that age discrimination — whether actual or the perception of age discrimination — has increased significantly over the last two to three years. More than 90% of people have indicated to us in our surveys that they’ve either experienced or have seen age discrimination in their workplace
How does the presence of older employees affect the workforce?
One of the biggest issues we’re seeing is that this pandemic has elevated people’s thinking about priorities and what really matters. Both employers and employees have to navigate what this “new normal” is going to look like. We’re also seeing an opportunity for employers to be very intentional and strategic about managing a multi-generational workforce.
The companies that have been able to thrive, particularly over the last couple of years during the pandemic, are those that leverage the age diversity of their workforce. There are some commonalities between the generations. For example, [the desire for] greater flexibility and the need to feel valued and to do work that provides purpose and meaning.
We did a survey of nearly 6,000 executives, and we found that nearly 83% said they valued a multi-generational workforce, but 53% did not [have] DEI policies [that included age]. So we need to close that gap between what leaders say they want to see in the workplace relative to how they’re executing that from a DEI perspective.
How can employers help their elder workers thrive?
Companies should look to what extent they are offering benefits that are “ageless.” One is around caregiving. We know that there are more than 48 million family caregivers in the United States, and the vast majority — over 60% — of these caregivers are working. They are making very tough decisions, either having to leave work early, come in late, call in sick, or in some cases leaving their job altogether because of their caregiver responsibilities.
Another example is around student loans. One might think that having a student loan repayment plan for entry-level workers who are just out of college might be the way to go. But we know there are millions of older adults who took out loans either for themselves or for a grandchild or a child, and they’re still paying on those loans. Thinking about ways to create benefits that cut across generations is another strategy that helps retain talent.
How have you applied what you learned in Stanford LEAD?
I was really inspired by the opportunity to engage with other leaders across the globe, particularly around innovation and leadership. Given the work we’re doing from a global thought leadership perspective, I thought that the alignment between our work and the tools that the program was offering would be tremendously beneficial to help me lead our team.
[I was especially interested in] design thinking and thinking more systematically about ways to solve challenges. The tools and the insights that I learned, particularly through the design thinking class, are things I still apply today. In fact, we had our annual retreat with our team, and the second day was focused solely on design thinking and using those tools to help our team come up with their plan for 2023.
You led some sessions at the World Economic Forum’s gathering in Davos in 2020 and 2022. What were the highlights?
I led a series of conversations with CEOs and other executives around fostering a multi-generational workforce and winning the war on talent as many companies manage five generations in the workforce and grapple with how to retain top talent. It was an amazing experience, thinking about ways we can collaborate to drive systemic change, which is something I’m extremely passionate about.
How has your experience been teaching at American University’s School of Public Affairs?
It’s been an amazing opportunity, and I also sit on the Board of Advisors, engaging very closely with the dean and the faculty. The role that public policy plays in our life is so critical. The broader public may not fully appreciate the complexity of how policy is developed, formed, and implemented. I have an opportunity to help equip the next generation of leaders to understand not just the importance of policy but also the implementation and what does that mean in terms of organization and individual behavior.
Actor/comedian Adam Sandler, who is 56, appears on the cover of a recent issue of AARP magazine. What does that say about attitudes on aging?
I think getting older is hip. The way people are aging today is different. The aging population is not a homogeneous or monolithic group. There’s great diversity, great range, great perspective. What you’re seeing come out of what we’re producing with this art, this magazine, or anything else we release, is being able to share the diversity of perspectives on what aging looks like today.
Photos by Cheriss May