Rethinking the TPP: How Free Trade Can Lead to Healthy Aging -- and Economic Growth

Rethinking the TPP: How Free Trade Can Lead to Healthy Aging -- and Economic Growth

Printer-friendly version
a a
Type Size: Small

President Obama and the Republicans have finally agreed on something: the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP, as it’s come to be known, is a mammoth proposition that would build new economic bridges between the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Singapore, Vietnam and more than a half-dozen other nations. Yet despite this surprising agreement between the President and the GOP, there are still plenty of people on both sides of the Pacific who want to give the deal a thumbs down.

Proponents of the TPP argue that the agreement will lower tariffs, create jobs, and boost output. But there is considerable skepticism about these claims. So supporters need to connect the agreement to an issue with profound consequence for all nations involved, one that everyone must get right to prosper in the 21st century.

Though it may seem an odd match for a trade agreement, one such issue is the aging of the population. For all twelve nations wrapped up in the deal, it is essential to craft new strategies and policies for thriving economically in an era when the old will outnumber the young.

In the history of trade negotiations, discussions have typically moved from the basic goal of reducing tariffs to the broader issue of improving conditions inside society in order to attract foreign investment and achieve economic growth. In the historic WTO negotiations, the dialogue evolved to include labor standards, environmental standards, intellectual property, and more.

Each of these issues transcends any one nation’s needs and unites them in a shared goal. Today, the aging population provides another piece of common ground. And by bringing TPP negotiations into conversation with population aging, the controversial deal could get new life.

Why population aging? More and more, we have come to recognize that the 21st century will be shaped by the intersection of two demographic forces: the longevity revolution, in which it’s becoming routine to live to 80, 90 and 100; and the drop of fertility, a consequence of modernization and urbanization. These changes are sometimes seen as unique to wealthy nations, but in fact the emerging and developing markets of the world are experiencing these twin phenomena most rapidly. These demographic forces have a powerful impact on economic growth and wealth creation – two areas that trade agreements are supposed to advance.

Both trade and aging are questions at the core of economic growth and success. Though they’re odd partners on the surface, they’re united at their core.

There are four platforms upon which this connection could be made:

1) Age-Friendly Business Principles. Create a set of age-friendly business principals that would become standard in all nations in the TPP agreement. The WEF had already recognized the value of such principles, which provide a shared vision that transcends tariff rates and trade routes.

2) Meeting Care Needs. The demand for caregiving is exceeding the supply. TPP nations could help solve this mismatch by enabling labor, technology and business models to flow more easily across borders. Yesterday’s way of caring for those in need won’t work tomorrow, and any solution needs to be global. TPP nations can take the lead.

3) Financial Planning: Financial planning looks very different in Hanoi than it does in Tokyo or New York. Nevertheless, one fundamental idea needs to structure all financial planning in the 21st century: Lives are going to extend far longer than they ever have before and old assumptions no longer work. Sharing knowledge and collaboration across borders will become an engine for smarter planning and growth.

4) Healthy Aging: No country is immune from age-related non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease. The economic toll – not to mention the personal tragedies – of these diseases is becoming catastrophic. TPP nations could collaborate on research, diagnosis, treatment, clinical trials and more in order to accelerate the R&D that will lead to innovation supporting 21st century health needs.   

For President Obama, congressional Republicans, and all others shaping the deal on both sides of the Pacific, the headwinds against the TPP are strong. They’d be wise to infuse the TPP dialogue with the opportunities of population aging. Not only would this be sound economic policy, but it would give them a new platform from which to tout the benefits of the deal. 

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.