The One Issue That Unites the U.S. and China

The One Issue That Unites the U.S. and China

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When China’s Xi Jinping and America’s Barack Obama met in California in early June, there was no shortage of speculation (or supplication) about the topics of conversation. Cyber-espionage and China’s gluttony of American debt were perhaps the two most sensational subjects.

But over the longer term, the two leaders need to recognize and acknowledge that the world’s two largest economies have the same pressing question: how to position aging populations to drive economic growth.

It is a subject less sexy than militarized computer hacking, to be sure. But as the two nations struggle to position themselves for 21st century success and global leadership, the issue matters to everyone  rich and poor, rural and urban, secular and religious. All nations are aging at a breakneck pace, yet no one country has yet established itself as the global leader in solutions for an aging population.

RELATED:   Why Rapid Aging Can Enable Rapid Economic Growth

In China, the stakes are clear. Its economic success over the past few decades is impressive, but the question looms: Will China get old before it gets rich?

This question, asked by many, wrongly assumes that aging and economic growth are incompatible. They aren’t. But the burden is on Xi and the rest of China to find ways to keep its aging population productive. Soon, its over-60 population will be larger than the entire population of the U.S.  

Due to its “one-baby” policy, the demographics of aging are further exacerbated by a perverse 4-2-1 family structure. In most Chinese families there are four grandparents, two parents, and one child. It’s a demographic set-up that makes traditional age-based welfare systems fully impossible even without the broader demographic changes today that shift the proportion of old to young in transformational ways.  

To its credit, China has taken note. Its fifth Twelve-Year Plan calls for bringing 93 percent of elder care out of long-term institutions and into the community and home. Beijing’s elite Renmin University also recently held a policy dialogue in conjunction with the U.S.-based Global Coalition on Aging to discover the best steps for reducing costs associated with aging and keeping the over-60 population contributing to the economy. 

But China needs President Xi to work with Obama and other global leaders to forge the right aging solutions. What can China learn, for example, from Home Instead? The senior care company provides high-quality, cost-effective, home-based care to older individuals without using federal dollars. 

This American-invented company has expanded globally and is a scalable and sustainable care model. Its personal touch toward people in need also aligns with traditional family values. How can this model be replicated in China? And what can China learn from innovators in the U.S. health care sector, including Pfizer, Lilly, Johnson & Johnson? These organizations lead not only in health solutions but in workplace programs to keep workers active, healthy, productive, and engaged throughout our life course. 

China and the U.S. can also learn from each other as they strive to create age-friendly cities.  Both nations are participating in the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities program, and cities from New York and Chicago to Pudong (a region of Shanghai) are piloting ways to bring together innovative care models, technology, and biomedicine. Partnership between Presidents Xi and Obama would be most welcome  and productive.

If the “shirtsleeves” meeting in Rancho Mirage failed to discuss aging populations, there is still plenty of time for either leader to compensate for the missed opportunity. The G8, under direction from British Prime Minister David Cameron, is focusing on Alzheimer’s.  And the OECD has become increasingly focused on aging. Both organizations can be leveraged for working towards solutions for population aging, including a 21st century innovation of “aging populations as new sources of economic growth.”

It’s become standard thinking that the 21st century belongs to the Chinese. The British ruled the 19th; the Americans the 20th; and the Chinese will take the torch for the current century. But this chronicle is not foretold – and the race to the top remains open. Who leads on population aging may yet prove to be the decisive factor.

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.