In the presidential race, there’s been virtually no discussion by either President Obama or Governor Romney about how the U.S.’s aging population can help, or hinder, economic growth. Each candidate propounds his view of recovery, but neither has promulgated a plan for keeping some reasonable portion of the 57 million Americans who are over the age of 60 active and engaged contributors to the economy. This oversight or negligence doesn’t bode well when we have 77 million baby boomers nearing traditional retirement age.
In the European Union, how many nations will fall into irretrievable debt before Mario Draghi or Angela Merkel suggest that Europe’s 20th-century entitlement systems are incompatible with 21st-century demographics? And how many more G-8 and G-20 summits will pass without mention that two people turn age 60 every second of every minute – with an obvious impact on core questions of fiscal sustainability unless profound social and economic changes put in place that align with our new century’s demographic realities?
By contrast, the United Nations Population Fund and Helpage International have just released their landmark report, “Ageing in the Twenty-First Century: A Celebration and a Challenge,” which spotlights the planet’s aging populations through analysis and public policy change. The report is not just a key collaboration among the most important nongovernmental (NGOs) and global institutions in the field – Helpage and the International Federation on Ageing (IFA), alongside the World Health Organization (WHO) – it’s the first high-visibility global statement about our current demographic transformation in connection with “development.”
Over the next few decades, a variety of places around the globe will struggle with “getting old before getting rich.” As Richard Blewitt, CEO of Helpage, has said, “After years of being viewed only as a concern for developed economies, ageing is now at the point of going global: Nearly 80 percent of the world’s older people will live in emerging and developing economies by mid-century.” And since the report contains a clear call to action stamped with U.N. credibility, it may prove to shape the global agenda over the coming decades.
The report fully recognizes that an older world – more of us over age 60 than under age 14 by mid century – is a global matter, as relevant in Dusseldorf as it is in Minnesota or Osaka. Population aging isn’t just a question of more old people: It means the emergence of a new kind of society in which older adults remain at the heart of social, political, and economic life. In that sense, the attention in the report to “seniors” as dependent and victimized, while a reminder of work still to be done, can distract from the larger socio-economic phenomenon that population aging represents.
If we get this one right, we will all have reason to celebrate. Success for everyone in the 21st century depends not only on the ability to recreate and re-imagine aging, but on redesigning and restructuring the institutions of society to align to this global transformation upon us.
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Council of Foreign Relations and Executive Director of The Global Coalition on Aging.