Future of retirement—Exploring and applying system thinking

This blog post reports on work-in-progress within the DfG course! The post is written by group 1B working in collaboration with the Digital Population and Data Services (DVV) and the Ministry of Finance (VM) on the project ‘Life events for a dignified old age’. The group includes Uyanga Baasankhuu from Collaborative and Industrial Design program, Xiaolin Jiang from Human Computer Interaction program, Regina Gensinger from Creative Sustainability program, and Camila Hergatacorzian from Collaborative and Industrial Design program.

Written by: Xiaolin Jiang

Mapping the context

To provide some background information, our Super Group 1 approached the shared challenge from three perspectives: organization, citizens, and the future of retirement. Interestingly, we have the same interest in how future trends might challenge people’s existing understanding of retirement. With the shared perspective, we then focused on the future of retirement.

Over the past few weeks, we have gathered information through secondary research and discussions with stakeholders, including two experts in digital services, forecasting, and futures from DVV and a Population Aging Research Group researcher. We also created a questionnaire to collect thoughts from our end users, who are retired and will be retiring.

Our research mainly focuses on answering the following questions:

  • How could aging look like from a mega-trend/future studies perspective?
  • What is the role of digitalization in the future of retirement?
  • What is the “construct” of dignified old age from the future generation’s perspective?

Having these questions defined, we could dive into the information sea concerning every aspect of “dignified old age” and collect fragments of our research puzzle more efficiently and purposefully. After collecting significant data and information, we moved to sense-making.

System Thinking and Sense-making

Researchers and design practitioners have begun to pay an increasing amount of attention to system thinking over the years, as the complex problems we are facing globally, such as climate change, the energy crisis, inequality, etc., cannot be solved by creating a single product or service. To address these challenging issues, system change at multiple levels is needed (Vezzoli et al., 2018). For example, creating a product using recyclable materials will be of little benefit if our production and consumption systems remain unsustainable and no change occurs in people’s mindset. With that said, you may be wondering the same thing I am: “Ok, I get that system thinking is important, but how?”. Meadows’s book, Thinking in Systems (2008), gave me a clear idea of what the answer to this question could be. The complexity of a system, its elements and characteristics, the unwanted situations we might encounter in a system, and the possible coping strategies within one are all well-explained in her book. However, at this early stage of the project, we still have to identify “events” within our topic before we can conduct any systemic analysis on structural causes deep down. With this in mind, we examined our data, attempting to identify phenomena and underlying patterns.

We used an affinity map to extract themes and primary insights. As we became familiar with the topics related to retirement and old age, we realized that retirement and old age are not necessarily the same. Retired people and the elderly are often seen as having decreased autonomy and in need of care and rest. However, current research is challenging our notions of retirement and old age. Studies show that people who are close to retirement age have no trouble working (Stanford Center on Longevity, 2022, p. 47) and many retirees are interested in continuing to work (Teppo Turkki, 2017). Additionally, elderly’s desire for entertainment has been increasing (Scott, 2021, p. e833).

The system maps introduced are actionable tools for systematic analysis. From what I have learned so far, a goodthe right system map can help us visualize the value transfers between different stakeholders in a value network or the interaction between system parts. It helps us understand how different aspects are connected and makes it easier to spot problems. Initially, we struggled with defining various emerging trends in a system map with multiple actors, as our research touched upon a wide range of topics. We felt it was more appropriate to be covered by other groups focusing on organizations and citizens. We then tried to make sense of our insights by sketching causality whilst thinking aloud. This procedure led us to the casual loop diagram, which allowed us to map out how different driving forces affected the current system and how the system could look like in the desired future through positive and negative feedback. Looking back, it was the emerging themes (ageism, life courses, pension system, healthcare system) in our affinity diagram that helped us set the boundaries of the systems we later focused on. We arrived at five major insights, including the need for a more personalized pension system, a transition from reactive treatment to predictive prevention in healthcare sector, and a shift from hospitals to home care. The remaining two, which our stakeholders believed to be the most promising, are introduced in the following sections.

Insight 1: Age-friendliness is a new in-demand value

Our first insight mainly focuses on ageism, a serious problem in our society. Senior citizens often face discrimination both in the workplace and in their daily social interactions. For instance, they are less likely to receive specialized training than younger workers, and people tend to hold the stereotype that older people are less valuable. And this could have a negative effect on older people’s well-being as well as the economy (WHO, 2012). As the casual loop diagram on the left side shows, even the introduction of new technology can cause older workers to be displaced, which might lead to a decrease in diversity in the workplace and have a negative impact on their well-being. This would then force older workers to retire, resulting in a decline in labor, and a reduction in the funding of the pension system. It’s clear that maintaining a long career is essential for supporting the welfare state and economic growth in the face of high life expectancy and a shrinking labor market. Also, staying socially active and employed can have positive effects on psychological health and life satisfaction in later stages of life. In that sense, interventions to address this universal challenge are needed to combat ageism as population declines continue. Therefore, we proposed challenging the representation of older people as a possible intervention area.

Figure 1. Age-friendliness is a new in-demand value. Causal loop diagram

Insight 2: Dynamic life courses

The need for new structures and practices for skill development is increasing, leading to the emergence of age-integrated schools, reskilling initiatives, and other similar programs. As people are living longer, the traditional idea of dividing one’s life into three stages — education in the beginning, work in the middle, and leisure in the later years — is becoming outdated. Instead of working for long periods in the same career that may not keep up with changing workplaces, people are taking breaks to learn new skills, pivot to different careers, and pursue their interests. This trend might continue after retirement, as continuous learning in later years can improve one’s well-being. We see a potential in leveraging lifelong learning to enhance digital literacy, since it may benefit them in navigating a fast-changing world driven by technologies. And in the meantime, improve their quality of life.

Figure 2. Dynamic life courses.

Carry the lessons learned from challenges forward

One of the challenges we encountered during the problem phase was making decisions. Since we each dug in a different direction, we tended to prioritise our work. However, we realised our bias stemmed from not seeing the same information. Fortunately, we clarified the feedback loops in different systems and saw the same picture through mapping. Personally, this period has been a great learning experience, as I had the opportunity to learn from experienced peers and approaches different to the school of science.

Moving forward to the solution phase, we still need to keep system thinking in mind to navigate this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world and be able to create innovative solutions that consider the consequences and produce positive long-term systemic change. How would a different future of retirement look like? Stay tuned!


Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Scott, A. (2021). The longevity economy. The Lancet Healthy Longevity2, e828–e835. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2666-7568(21)00250-6

Stanford Center on Longevity. (2022, April). The New Map of Life. Stanford Center on Longevity. https://longevity.stanford.edu/the-new-map-of-life-full-report/

Teppo Turkki. (2017, December 19). The Canadian model for dealing with ageing. Sitra. https://www.sitra.fi/en/blogs/canadian-model-dealing-ageing/

Vezzoli, C., Ceschin, F., Osanjo, L., M’Rithaa, M. K., Moalosi, R., Nakazibwe, V., & Diehl, J. C. (2018). Design for Sustainability: An Introduction. In C. Vezzoli, F. Ceschin, L. Osanjo, M. K. M’Rithaa, R. Moalosi, V. Nakazibwe, & J. C. Diehl (Eds.), Designing Sustainable Energy for All: Sustainable Product-Service System Design Applied to Distributed Renewable Energy (pp. 103–124). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-70223-0_5

WHO. (2012, March 18). Ageism is a global challenge: UN. https://www.who.int/news/item/18-03-2021-ageism-is-a-global-challenge-un

The DfG course runs for 14 weeks each spring – the 2023 course has now started and runs from 27 Feb to 31 May. It’s an advanced studio course in which students work in multidisciplinary teams to address project briefs commissioned by governmental ministries in Finland. The course proceeds through the spring as a series of teaching modules in which various research and design methods are applied to address the project briefs. Blog posts are written by student groups, in which they share news, experiences and insights from within the course activities and their project development. More information here about the DfG 2023 project briefs.

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