It’s official! The baby boomer wave now turning “old” is shaping elite conversation. But will this conversation impact how governments and global institutions treat public policy with fiscal consequences? Are President Obama and Speaker Boehner taking note? One month into the two-decade long process of the demographic revolution in which the post-World War II generation turns 65, both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times think they’re onto something big. The Economist, of course, that venerable elite, already featured aging in its year-end issue, blogged about here at the time. But the common theme in this weekend’s front-page coverage is how different this generation’s aging is from that of others – both in sheer numbers, due to the population’s greater longevity, and in broad economic impact, due to the fiscal challenges presented by the proportion of those over 65 compared to the overall population.
Also noteworthy is the difference in attitude, shown by Ellen Byron’s focus in the Wall Street Journal on “how to market to an aging boomer.” One company’s research shows that “sixty percent of boomers who are 65 claim to feel much younger than their actual age.” The piece concludes: “Boomers are much more focused on enhancing their well being versus just trying to address being sick, as the prior generation might have been.” So if 60 is the new 40, can 85 be the new 65, with enormous consequences for the marketplace, public policy and society?
Which takes us to the other weekend piece, by Natasha Singer in the New York Times business section. She writes about innovative technologies “to help older adults maintain health, independence and quality of life.” The profound and encouraging message is that these solutions are being driven by the marketplace for an aging population that increasingly will not want to think of itself as, well, aging – and certainly not old! As she writes, it’s about how to transform an exploding population of 70- and 80-somethings into an economic and social asset, as opposed to a worrisome “looming budget crisis… [in which] treating dementia worldwide already costs more than $600 billion annually,” or the pension fiasco faced by many U.S. states and national governments globally.
Applying an optimistic lens to innovation – in biomedical research, technology, information, financial security – in order to turn the globe’s aging population into a positive economic and social driver is not a bad goal at all. An active, healthy aging enabled through innovation might actually stand the crisis on its head. As Ms. Singer writes, “The number of people 65 and older is expected to more than double worldwide, to about 1.5 billion by 2050 from 523 million last year. That means people 65 and over will soon outnumber children under five for the first time.”
“No other force,” says S&P in its Global Aging Report, “is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances and policy making as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.” If S&P is right, population aging ought be as much about the impact on social changes for the 21st century – requiring realignment of government and public policy to new demographic realities – as it is about changes in marketing to an aging population.
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is managing director, the High Lantern Group, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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