The Class of 2015 Could Witness the Next Century

The Class of 2015 Could Witness the Next Century

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Class of 2015, it is an honor to address you today on this monumental occasion. I’m a bit surprised by the invitation, to be honest. I’m not in movies, I have no guitar, and I do not and never will hold public office.

Instead, I spend my life working with business and public policy leaders to transform this thing called “population aging” into one of the 21st century’s great opportunities.

By asking me to address you, I am assuming you have an understanding that the demographic change we are calling “population aging” is at least as relevant for you  as old guys like me. Your generation will experience the full measure of longevity that is changing how we live.  Add to that the trend of low birth rates across our planet (more people are dying than are being born) and, my dear graduates before you can blink,  there will be as many people in this world over 60 as under 14.

Related: How Millennials Could Damage the U.S. Economy

So as you chase your dreams and allow your passions to guide your ambitions – advice I wholeheartedly endorse -- you will be doing so in a world different than any generation previously has known. That you have more life ahead than any generation, including mine, ever experienced is a big deal. And your careers will be unbound by age as the wonders of innovation, medicine and science continue to deliver an ever-healthier aging.

While there have always been people who lived long, never before has it been so common. All of your parents may likely become great-grandparents.  And all of you will likely live with four or five generations as a matter of course.

So let us celebrate this new step for humanity. And let us consider how you, the lucky beneficiaries of this march of progress, can thrive in this new world.    

Today I pose two questions.

How are you going to craft a 50-year career? Don’t be hoodwinked by the half-baked economic analysis of The New York Times that suggests that the economy is back on its feet. We may be emerging from this recession that has colored your teenage years, but that’s only half the picture

The other half is this: when you hit 55 or even 65, today’s official retirement, you are far from done. If you live to 100, do you really want to call it quits at a third of the way through life? And if you wanted to retire, could society manage with so many not working?  

These are questions that many Baby Boomers are struggling with today. They want to work and they need to work, but a stubborn old tradition prevails that keeps opportunities limited for us “seniors.”  This is why today’s unemployment rate, officially at about 5 percent, is actually closer to 13 percent if you include all of us over 50 who have just stopped looking.   

And that’s bad news for you. We’re in this one together. Prosperity is a multi-generational accomplishment, and economic growth and success demand that people of all ages are active and productive. As you think about your career, don’t be fooled by the myth of the “gray ceiling.” Your elders are not your competition, but your partners. Besides, we  geezers are, after all, the folks who brought you Led Zeppelin, flip flops, and the artificial heart.

That brings me to my second question:

What is your social contract? If you read your Rousseau – or at least skimmed it on Wikipedia before your exam – you know that since the Enlightenment, societies have been grappling with the question of how we negotiate our rights within a larger political order.

But many of the assumptions that underpin this contract are crumbling as a consequence of the disconnect between 21st century demography and 20th century public policies and social and economic institutions.  

Life is longer. The babies are fewer. The questions are different.

As you know, here in the U.S., FDR built a social entitlement system during the dog-years of the Great Depression. In doing so, he shaped the American social contract. He created a new relationship – both actual and theoretical – between individual and collective. This is most obvious with Social Security. When you’re young, you pay in. When you’re old, you take out. It got tweaked in the sixties by LBJ’s Great Society and visibly Medicare, which assumed health entitlements purely a function of age. 

The math that FDR and LBJ were working with is as obsolete as the former’s Model T or the latter’s land line.  The entitlements they created, which persist much intact today, need to be updated to fit 21st century demographics, norms and needs.  The basic institutions of 20th century “work” and “retirement” are unfit for 21st century demographics. Just look at Japan to see the profound struggles of the first “old” society on the planet – more old than young – and how it confounds economic growth, wealth creation and prosperity. 

This demands nothing less than you rewriting the social contract for the 21st century. It is upon your shoulders, class of 2015, to imagine a world where the entire life course defies traditional expectations. You will not sell insurance for 35 years and then get a gold watch and a one-way ticket to South Florida.

For that you should be ever grateful. But with this mighty liberation comes a set of questions that still awaits answers. It is up to you to write this new tomorrow.

If you look back over the generations of students who have stood on this campus before you and imagined the limitless possibilities of their futures, none have had the opportunities that you do. Apps and innovative technology may help, but first you must have the ideas on which this transformational demography can be based. The world is waiting for our 21st century social contract.

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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.