How to Fix the White House Summit on Aging

How to Fix the White House Summit on Aging


Last Thursday, the administration announced that on July 13 it will hold its White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA), the once-every-decade event first mandated by Congress in 1965. 

Besides marking some major milestones, the conference offers a chance to think deeply about one of the most significant global trends that must be confronted across the planet: a massive, aging population.

But the way the conference is introduced on its web site sounds more 20th than 21st century:  “2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security. The 2015 White House Conference on Aging is an opportunity to recognize the importance of these key programs as well as to look ahead to the issues that will help shape the landscape for older Americans for the next decade.”

Even its four policy briefs – Healthy Aging, Long-term Services and Supports, Elder Abuse and Retirement Security –  while useful topics, suggest a last-century perspective on aging.

Yet, there’s still time for the Obama White House to get this one right. Here are five ways to think about aging that would help shape the landscape for all Americans – young and old, active and in need –  as we grow older

A path for economic growth. Even as the White House announced the conference, first-quarter GDP growth was revised downward from a .2% to a contraction of .7% . Global uncertainty and bad weather are cited as two of the factors tamping down growth, but hasn’t it occurred to anyone that a more likely source is the profound structural aging of our population that continues to go unaddressed? Historic longevity and continued reductions in births have become a feature of the global economy,  in Japan and China, but also across Europe and right here at home in America.  Japan, particularly is the canary in the mineshaft.  Its two-decade march of economic decline from the glory days of “Japan as #1 is perfectly correlated with the misalignment of  economic policies to take into account 21st century demographics. The issue for Japan--and for the U.S.-- is how to change the culture, policies and institutions in order to re-imagine and transform what used to be considered old age into an active, engaged, cutting-edge demographic. Sure, there will be those who will need care. But just ask Japan what happens when you assume 30-40% of your population will be uninvolved in economic activity.

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It’s the children, stupid. An aging conference in 1965 or even 1985 could have been forgiven for focusing largely on topics like elder abuse or long-term care. But today, as our children can expect to live into their 90s and beyond as a matter of course, a conference on aging has to be about the profound impact longevity has on the full course of our entire lives. Twentieth century notions about education, work and retirement don’t have much relevance when we can expect a working life of 60+ years. Just because the word aging makes us think of being old doesn’t mean we restrict ourselves from the limitless American opportunities longevity makes available. If we were to think of aging more as a strategic lens through which to understand society’s opportunities, that would open the agenda to creative and innovative changes of the sort the McKinsey Global Institute had in mind in its recent book No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All The Trends (technological innovation, aging, urbanization and connectedness). Aging is about our longevity, which is about public policies and institutions fit for 21st century demographics. Sure, let’s solve elder abuse, but let’s also not assume that what we created in the 20th century can work today.

Outside the Beltway. Some of the most innovative aging initiatives are taking place in our cities. From New York to Portland, Ore., there is a growing adoption of and adaptation to the WHO Age Friendly Cities Principles that are driving change in infrastructure, education, small business, health and social services to enable a healthier and active aging. A panel of mayors at the WHCOA – those who have envisioned “age-friendly cities” – could drive even greater interest in urban areas adapting to aging populations. 

Business Steps up. There is a growing list of “age-friendly businesses” that have growth strategies for their shareholders based on the explosion of commercial power from the 55+ demographic, not to mention their competitive need to attract and retain talent. No wonder, last week AEGON (Transamerica here in the U.S.) announced its global institute on retirement. Here’s how Catherine Collinson, executive director of the center, put it: “We are passionate about conducting research, educating the public, and informing a global dialogue on aging, longevity, and retirement security.”  Or consider Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s innovations on how to save and retire in light of our 21st century longevity; who would have predicted they would put Alzheimer’s  and geriatric experts on staff. And keep an eye on Intel’s applications in its Internet of Things where wearables will reflect aging needs as much as Millennial fun (Intel has led global business by signing onto the World Economic Forum’s Age-Friendly Business Principles).  Also, there’s Nestlé Skin Health, which is are opening up SHIELD (Skin Health Investigation, Education and Longevity Development) Centers across America and globally to connect aging and skin needs as we all live much longer than ever before in history.

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Finding the Money. Of course, aging is also about eldercare needs. The multiple non-communicable diseases, including Alzheimer’s, will affect more of us than ever, and more traditional health needs will continue to explode. With the huge gap between elder care needs and available caretakers, there will be greater burdens on family caretakers. That’s why we need to consider private-sector solutions in areas once reserved for governments and not-for-profits. A robust representation at the WHCOA of those in private homecare – a growth industry across America and globally – surely should be present alongside Medicare and Medicaid services.  

If the WHCOA is about our seniors as it was in 1965, let’s then change the name and call it a day.  If it really is about aging – the massive force that is shaping how we live globally – let’s open our minds to how this transformational mega trend can be the basis for a third American Century.

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