Fueled by changing demographics, there have been remarkable changes in society in the 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963.
We live roughly 30 years longer today than we did back then. At the same time, the number of children born has been plummeting. Nearly all developed nations are below replacement level (two babies born per woman per lifetime) – while developing nations have seen incredible decreases. India, as one example of many, has seen its birth rate fall from nearly 6 to 2.5.
The shift in proportion of old-to-young is transforming every nation on earth, but it is interesting that Japan – to which Caroline Kennedy has presented her credentials nearly 50 years after her father’s death, almost to the day – has the oldest population on the planet. An incredible 30 percent of Japan’s population is over age 60, and this will climb to 40 percent in the next two decades.
The question for Madame Ambassador, at this historic moment, is how she will engage the Japanese with respect to this unprecedented demographic transformation. What can she learn from the Japanese that will help the U.S. as its population continues to age, inching ever closer to the Japanese structure?
There is a parallel relationship between aging and economic stagnation. Since 1990, Japan’s over-60 population has outnumbered those under 14, and by 2020 there will be nearly three senior citizens for every child. The fiscal and economic implications, of course, are massive.
Moreover, as Brazil, China, Thailand, Turkey and other nations continue to urbanize and modernize, how are they going to keep developing economically as their populations grow older? Japan is, so to speak, the canary in the coalmine, and Ms. Kennedy is now at the center of one of the greatest socio-economic questions of the 21st century.
Perhaps S&P put it best in their 2010 report, Global Aging: An Irreversible Truth: “No other force is likely to shape the future of national public health, national finances, and national policies at the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.”
No doubt President John F. Kennedy would have had a vision and an indelible turn of phrase to guide public policy and reconsider how society’s most fundamental institutions needed to be re-imagined and re-invented to meet the new demands of an aging population. Perhaps instead of apologizing for broken health insurance websites as President Obama has done, Kennedy would have been focused on finding solutions to health and health care.
As the U.S.’s health care system struggles to find the right solutions, perhaps Kennedy would have made aging a national priority and issued a call-to-action as he did with the space program. A solution surely must be healthy aging, so that more Americans over 60 can remain active, working and economically engaged. That's quite a different model than the presumptions of dependency and disability.
Perhaps Caroline Kennedy can pull a page from her father’s playbook and re-frame the challenges of population aging. It is not only a question of present-day fiscal sustainability and economic growth. It is also a question of creating a sounder world for our children and grandchildren and their heirs to come. Unsustainable spending and a reeling economy will be their inheritance if 20th century solutions continue to be offered for 21st century demographics.
The questions for Caroline Kennedy are many. What can we learn from the Japanese, a nation in which adult diapers will soon outsell baby diapers? How can we change our attitudes and policies to align with population aging?
How can we transform our aging population from a position of dependency to vitality, from liability to asset? If Ms. Kennedy can find solutions to these pressing questions, she will have answered her father’s call of asking “what you can do for your country.” Since aging populations are a global phenomenon, she will be serving the planet’s humanity as well.
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, managing partner at High Lantern Group, and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College. He is a featured blogger for The Fiscal Times and The Huffington Post.