President Obama’s “jobs speech” tonight risks being as irrelevant as the U.S. Postal Service right now – unless the President dispenses with platitudes, abandons political norms, and acknowledges that America’s aging population can and should be transformed from a phenomenon of dependency and disability to one that features an active and working American cohort. It’s a cohort that can make important contributions to economic growth and wealth creation.
With roughly 80 million of us turning 65 over the next two decades; with all of us living longer by an average of 30 years; and with the low fertility rate barely at replacement levels and baked into mid-century, why not a jobs speech that turns this cohort into a veritable jobs machine? It would recognize that the new demographic realities are transformative – and would resonate because it is so true.
But what would it take?
First, the President needs to not just assert the new reality, but give it vision and leadership. America needs a change in culture in terms of who we consider old and who we consider middle aged, as well as in who we consider active and working and who we consider retired and dependent. This is a global phenomenon, by the way – which is why the European Union will be celebrating 2012 as its “Year of Active and Healthy Aging;” the World Health Organization has also chosen to dedicate its World Health Day in 2012 to aging populations; and the Asia Pacific Economic Council has chosen to focus on “aging, health and innovation” in its policy dialogue.
Second, the President should announce a few specific policy changes on such things as calculating pensions, means testing for Medicare, tax credits to businesses that keep employees who are over 60 working, and an education program to provide skill and training enhancement to help Americans stay in the workplace as they age.
Third, the President should consider infrastructure investment in the medical science and technology arena, to enable the kinds of innovation that will lead to healthy aging. An investment in Alzheimer’s disease alone could help move millions of Americans away from a state of desperate dependency and back toward a more active role in society.
A jobs program for middle-age Americans – those 55 to 75 – would be new, different, and relevant. Turning a portion of our aging population into an economic force could be the path toward America’s competitiveness in this century.
Oh, and Mr. President: Don’t buy the nonsense that this is an “either or” situation, that 73-year-olds would take jobs away from 23-year-olds. Wasn’t true for men when women entered the workforce decades ago; it isn’t true now. A 65- or 70-year-old employed in a big bank or starting a small enterprise would instead help transform the nation’s socio-economic balance from one of dependency and subsidization to one that drives economic activity – and helps create jobs.