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Gerontology: Aging is a hard sell

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When the University of Massachusetts at Boston created an undergraduate degree in gerontology, it was a bold step, because the study of aging was always bound to be a niche field among students in the prime of their youth. Yet the last decade has been a struggle: As the Globe reported recently, enrollment in the undergraduate program has fallen by two-thirds, to 13, over the last decade. A relaunch in 2010 failed to yield more students. For that reason, UMass Boston’s decision to suspend the undergraduate program was a bow to reality. But it’s still unfortunate, because the issues at stake will only grow in importance as the baby boom generation moves into retirement.

While the long-predicted demographic shift facing the United States is only beginning to come into focus for policy makers, the change in other nations has already been profound. Japan, which has an older population than any other major nation, has been transformed both in predictable and surprising ways — all of which bear further study.

Yet for gerontology to thrive as a separate area of study, researchers need to make it clearer to students how the field connects to the future of the country and the economy. One advocate of the program even suggested a rebranding, saying the very term “gerontology” seemed outdated. For good or ill, the inherent significance of aging-related issues isn’t enough to sustain a program that can’t sell itself. If gerontology researchers at UMass Boston can make a more compelling case to students, administrators should be receptive to efforts to bring the undergraduate program back.

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