Survey: Cities Thrive When They Harness Senior Power
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The Fiscal Times
August 1, 2012

Everyone loves a good ranking – whether it’s for law schools, college football or Scorsese movies.  Now,  the Milken Institute is joining the club with “Best Cities for Successful Aging,” eliciting the predictable flood of “likes,” objections, and re-tweets. What’s amazing about the data is how misunderstood in its true significance – a platform to launch American greatness by transforming into promise what many regard as the peril of an aging population.    

PHOTO GALLERY: Click Here to See the 15 Best Cities for Aging

The Milken Institute, quite clearly, has stated that the survey should not be “confused...with the many rankings and opinion polls that identify the sunniest or most inexpensive places to live out retirement.” According to Paul Irving, the institute’s Chief Operating Officer, a “successful aging” city is one that is “safe, affordable, engaging, and connected...one that offers quality healthcare and an active lifestyle, ready access to transportation, education, employment, and recreation.”

In other words, a “successfully aging” city keeps older adults involved and engaged in social and economic life, which is a path toward wealth creation that is essential for 21st century economic vitality.  For both public and private sectors, there can be no success or fiscal sustainability if a full one-fifth of the population is drawing entitlements without contributing.

What makes a great city city for the aging? The Milken Index is clear about those factors which make for a great city to enable an active and productive aging: from wellness and health-care delivery, senior-friendly housing and transportation systems, to education, career and engagement opportunities. The top scoring cities included Provo, Utah, home to Brigham Young University, and Madison, Wisconsin. Both have low crime rates, active citizens, a wide-range of health care options and thriving economies.

Americans, along with the other 2 billion world citizens who will be over 60 in the next couple of decades, will have to live different lives than our parents and grandparents. But here’s the really exciting thing about the Milken Index: That since population aging is global, it is precisely those countries which figure out how to keep their over 60s active, engaged and productive who will win the 21st century’s economic competition.

If Milken’s aging index is the opening salvo in setting up America’s own competition for the best U.S. cities for aging Americans, history will place it as one of those groundbreaking markers that changed how the country and perhaps even the rest of the world begins to look at the senior population. And isn’t it just like America to find success through market competition – the cities that win in the Milken Index are those that are at the forefront of our successes globally. 

“Successful aging” is not about finding the “best city” in which to “grow old,” though, that, too is a nice side effect. As the Milken Institute has admirably defined it, successful aging is about staying engaged and connected; it’s about finding a place where one can stay active, relevant, and vital into one’s 60s, 70s, and 80s. It’s about the role American cities – where we actually live – can play in enabling an optimistic and inspired view of how America and the world transforms the “aging thing” from peril to promise, and from gloom and doom to opportunity. It’s an essential insight, one that has already gained traction on the global stage through the World Health Organization’s “Age-Friendly Cities” initiative. But the WHO’s checklist, like Milken’s, also happens to be good for those who are old and in need!  It is precisely through many more of us staying active and engaged that we will, in fact, find the money to help those who do need it.

Furthermore, the overall goal of the Milken study has thus far been largely ignored. According to Irving, “We hope the findings spark national discussion and, at the local level, generate virtuous competition among cities to galvanize improvement in the social structures that serve those seniors.”   But, there’s even more – done right a welcoming city for older Americans will be a great urban environment, period.  

So far, however, there has only been a lot of back-patting and high-fiving. The cities that fare well in the Milken ranking – like Boston, Salt Lake City, and Ann Arbor – have been quick to cover the story and note how well they did. While some celebration is understandable and justified, let’s hope that the next round of the media cycle comes from places like El Paso and Memphis – cities that didn’t do so well in the rankings. Let’s hope that journalists and policy-makers in the lower-ranking cities use the Milken report as a wakeup call. Or from the Romney and Obama political camps who would understand the Milken Report as an invaluable tool for our global competitiveness and 21st century leadership.

With 77 million American Baby Boomers passing into traditional retirement age, it is one of the U.S.’s top imperatives to find ways to keep this large cohort healthy, active, and productive – not exactly our 20th century notion of retirement. If this were about retirement, the index would have put a great value on places with sunny golf courses and easy beach front. 

The Milken Institute’s study should be applauded for its criteria and its goals, and let’s make sure it isn’t treated as another flippant ranking system to be tweeted once and then forgotten. This Index is a big deal, as it is as much about America’s comptitiveness and global leadership as it is about a nice place for old people.

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.