Last night in his State of the Union address (SOTU), President Obama took only a small, and perhaps unintended, step into one of the most significant topics of our time – the aging of our population. By mid-century our over-65 population will have doubled from today’s 40 million to 89 million, representing 1/5 of the American people. But it was a start when he introduced Kathy Proctor to the nation. Obama described her as someone who, “since the age of 18, was in the furniture industry and now, at 55, is getting a degree in biotechnology.”
It’s the 55 point that’s at least as interesting as how she’ll inspire her children to pursue their dreams. By mid-century, Americans will be living well into our nineties, expanding the number of people by tens of millions who will be living their lives differently, not unlike Kathy Proctor. But will that nugget be expanded into serious analysis and policy proposals – or will President Obama’s use of Proctor’s story fade into history, as is the case with other presidents’ “Lenny Skutnik”? Skutnik was the first celebrant feted in the congressional gallery by President Ronald Reagan during his 1982 SOTU.
Obama’s Kathy Proctor story should remain a key example of how we’re living today. A traditional retirement in the 55-65 age range won’t suit our lifestyles as we live into our nineties. As the Europeans are recognizing about their own population, America’s age demographic transformation over the next two decades is a big deal. It, too, demands vision and leadership, as Obama demonstrated in what he said last night about the environment: “I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal by 2035 – that 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.” An aging strategy for the 21st century also needs a vision that can guide and help prepare our nation three decades out.
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Executive Director of the Global Coalition on Aging.
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