The aging of the global population is one of the greatest social, political and economic challenges the world faces in the 21st century. For developed and developing nations, populations are poised to become far older than they have ever been. By 2050, there will be 2 billion people in the world older than 60, a number greater than the total population of those under age 15. As three long-term demographic trends intersect—increases in longevity, decreases in birth rates and the passing of the baby boomers into traditional retirement age—population aging is forcing a structural shift in societies around the globe.
Many commentators, NGOs and global organizations have recognized the challenges brought by the global population aging. However, there is an overall lack of attention paid to the personal and societal economics of aging, and two key questions remain: At a personal level, how can we remain active economic participants into what has been traditionally known as “retirement age”? At a societal level, how can new demographic ratios of old-to-young drive growth and wealth creation?
As Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has said, “[I]f we can make sure that we are stretching life in the middle and not just at the end, these extra years can be as productive as any other.” What Chan is suggesting, essentially, is that we re-imagine middle age and old age to realize aging as a time of health, activity and productivity.
Can American Leadership Fill the Void?
Central to this new construction of aging is leadership—leadership at both national and global levels. This leadership needs to bring together diverse public policy initiatives. And there is much to build upon in the past year. The European Union dedicated 2012 as the European Year for Active Ageing. The United Nations held a high-level summit on non-communicable diseases—diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer that mostly afflict older populations. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation “recognized that the rapid rise in non-communicable diseases ... poses a fundamental negative influence on the future of economic growth.” And the WHO dedicated World Health Day to “Aging and Health: Good Health Adds Life to Years.”
Each of these initiatives is valuable, but they are only creating a simmer. Bringing them to a full boil requires leadership. The U.S. Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats has recognized as much, saying, “Working together, we can turn the longevity bequeathed us from the 20th century into a positive driver of growth, contribution and economic activity in the 21st.”
Through Hormats and others, this global leadership void can be filled by the United States. In doing so, America could guide the world to a healthier, more productive future, but it could also strengthen its economy. In this globalized era where national economies are interconnected, the U.S. economy can only thrive with a healthy global economy. U.S. businesses require a strong global consumer market. As many economists argue, the rising global middle class—especially in the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China)—is fueling American exports and creating domestic wealth here. If new roles and opportunities are created for aging populations around the world, the United States can sharpen its competitive edge.
Solutions Needed in Three Key Areas
For the United States to establish itself as a leader with global population aging, it must lead by example. It must show the world how to implement sustainable, scalable solutions in three areas: health, education and work. Part of the process is to begin by asking the right questions:
Health. How can we forge new paths for healthy aging? How can the effects of major noncommunicable diseases—like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease—be mitigated so they are no longer automatic disablers for those aging? And how can preventive skin care and skin cancer screening, adult vaccination and prevention of hearing and vision loss enable healthy aging?
Education. How can we move beyond the idea that one’s education ends at 21? How can workplaces integrate lifelong education? How can barriers preventing older adults from returning to work be broken down? Our imperative is not just to re-invent lifelong learning, but to re-imagine which institutions and organizations ought to take the lead in adult education.
Work. How can people in their 60s, 70s and 80s be kept vital and relevant to the traditional and nontraditional workplace, contributing economically and building individual wealth? How can older adults become assets to organizations? And how can they add value to society beyond the traditional workplace environment?
It will take a broad, coordinated effort to begin finding answers to these tough questions. Yet, there are early signs of hope and reasons for optimism.
Models of Lifelong Education and Work
Public and private sectors are teaming up to work together, and businesses, NGOs and universities are stepping up to the challenge. Take the International Executive Service Corps (IESC), a nonprofit that promotes private enterprise in the developing world. IESC recruits “retired” veteran executives to help develop businesses and create economic growth in poorer parts of the world.
In England, Oxford University’s Harris Manchester College has developed an ongoing education program for mature students. The program differs from traditional educational tracks in that it adapts both content and environment to meet the needs of older students. In the private sector, many businesses—from Pfizer to Microsoft—are creating “work-life” programs that enable older workers to take care of their personal and familial needs while continuing to work in new, more flexible roles.
Despite broad and diverse progress, we are missing visible, galvanizing leadership. It is time for the United States to fill the void. Both in America and around the world, the aging of the population remains the greatest untapped social, economic and political resource of this century. Now it is our imperative to take a leadership position in order to ensure this resource does not go fallow.
Michael Hodin, Ph.D., is executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and managing director of High Lantern Group in New York City.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the September/October 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.
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