Age & Reason
In Budget Battles, Remember the Aging
Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 3:58pm
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It’s a big week in D.C., as President Obama’s budget proposal moves down Pennsylvania Avenue to Congressman Paul Ryan’s committee. Already there are explosions, including Ryan’s comment that the budget fails to meet the “critical test of leadership.” Over on C Street – State Department territory – they’ll be figuring out America’s role in the revolution that’s underway in the Middle East. And across the river, in Arlington, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are meeting for two days to explore how technological developments can address the “health and wellness challenges” of an aging society.

Though it may be less politically exciting, the Arlington event will have serious long term implications: No OECD country in the next two decades can presume fiscal sustainability without a new approach to the realities of aging populations.

The basic dynamics are stunning. The OECD countries have all witnessed “extraordinary gains in longevity … with average life expectancy at birth rising from 66 years in 1950 to just over 76 years in 2007,” according to an OECD report, “The Future of the Family to 2030.” There has been substantial growth in health and long term care expenditures in recent years, “since a much higher proportion of the elderly than the non-elderly have expensive chronic conditions.” In the U.S. alone, not only “are the majority of 70-year-olds affected by at least one chronic condition,” says the report, but 40 percent of the men in this age-group suffer from cardiovascular disease. Left unattended, these trends equal big-time economic disaster, with political consequence.

The NSF and OECD recognize that population aging – together with the shifting proportion of those under and over 60 – represents the most profound social change of our time. It will have the greatest impact on OECD government budgets, driving the entitlement tsunami we’re hearing about on Capitol Hill in the wake of the president’s budget release. But the NSF and OECD view this tsunami through the optimistic lens of technology, including high-speed and mobile applications, social networks and other cutting-edge developments, which “provide unique and unprecedented opportunities for developing services and stimulating collaboration and innovation on a global scale. These technological developments promise to deliver innovative ways of meeting patients’ needs for care and support” even in an environment of limited capital.   

As congressional and White House staffs struggle over today’s budget, they ought keep their eyes on the impact our country’s aging population will have. In just a decade, it will be driving a full 68 percent of the federal budget via the broken Medicare and Social Security systems—so answers to this historic social issue may well emerge from the OECD and NSF confab in Arlington on aging, technology and innovation.

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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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.