During their recent foreign policy speeches at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Reno, both presidential candidates recalled magazine-man Henry Luce’s ever-nostalgic ideal of “American Greatness.” President Obama put it this way: “If anyone tries to tell you that our greatness has passed, that America is in decline, you tell them this: Just like the 20th century, the 21st is going to be another great American Century.” And Governor Romney claimed: “I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.”
Romney, not surprisingly, connected the potential of “American greatness” to a reinvigorated economy. But even Romney failed to take the argument a step further. Standard and Poor’s has claimed that “no other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances, and policymaking as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.”
The conclusions S&P reaches in “Global Aging 2010: An Irreversible Truth” are incontrovertible. By mid-century, the world will have more people over the age of 60 than under 14, and many nations in Europe and Asia will have over a third of their populations well past outdated notions of “retirement age,” with Brazil, China, Mexico, Turkey, and other developing nations catching up fast. In the U.S., there will be over 90 million people aged over 60 by the year 2030, a full 50 percent more than there is today.
“American greatness” can and must be achieved by forging new paths for healthy, active and productive aging. It’s a fiscal imperative – and a huge untapped resource. If we are living into our 80s and beyond, who today really thinks retirement by 60 is personally desirable or economically palatable, other than perhaps the new Socialist government in France?
This untapped economic potential for those over 60 is a huge economic resource for our 21st century and could provide the foundation for a new “century of American greatness” that both Obama and Romney promise. Condoleezza Rice recently claimed that “the U.S. must overcome its reluctance to lead.” As the world struggles to integrate aging populations into economic growth strategies, American leadership is needed not only in our political discussion, but in the policy intellectual and think-tank corners, as underscored by the Council on Foreign Relations in its “Renewing America” project launched earlier this year.
America needs a strategy for older workers to remain relevant and vital economic contributors. If they do, there’s a two-fold win. One, they’ll continue to create wealth and contribute to economic growth. And two, they’ll shorten the time they’ll need the public and private entitlement systems that are becoming increasingly meager as ratios of old to young become further imbalanced and unsustainable.
Of course, this argument raises a difficult question: How can older adults remain active in economic life? There are number of answers. One would be to encourage policies that keep older workers healthier. Another would be make changes to the workplace to accommodate older adults, both physically and mentally. Yet another could be to create policies that enable workers who care for disabled parents the flexibility they need in order to fulfill roles as both career and employee.
These are all indispensible pursuits. But there’s another possibility that often gets overlooked. In our Silicon Valley-centric view of entrepreneurship, we ignore the entrepreneurial potential of older adults. According to the Kauffman Foundation, 20 percent of all entrepreneurs in the U.S. are between the ages of 55-64, and almost half are over the age of 45. The stereotype of a young kid in blue jeans and flip flops inventing the next digital creation is more Hollywood illusion than reality. As the Kauffman research shows, the face of entrepreneurship in the U.S. is often adorned with wrinkles and gray hair.
In the presidential campaign this year, it would make sense to approach matters of global competition on the basis of a truly innovative approach to aging Americans and our economic strength. If aging populations can stay healthy, socially active and economically productive, the stubborn American economy will get a jumpstart. It’s a key to success domestically – and could become the platform on which to build another great century. The world will be watching how America leads on this one.
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations and Executive Director of The Global Coalition on Aging.