Population Aging Is Tilting the World's Societies. Is This a Crisis-Or an American Leadership Opportunity?

Article excerpt

The aging of the global population is one of the greatest social, political and economic challenges the world faces in the 21st century. For developed and developing nations, populations are poised to become far older than they have ever been. By 2050, there will be 2 billion people in the world older than 60, a number greater than the total population of those under age 15. As three long-term demographic trends intersect-increases in longevity, decreases in birth rates and the passing of the baby boomers into traditional retirement agepopulation aging is forcing a structural shift in societies around the globe.

Many commentators, NGOs and global organizations have recognized the challenges brought by the global population aging. However, there is an overall lack of attention paid to the personal and societal economics of aging, and two key questions remain: At a personal level, how can we remain active economic participants into what has been traditionally known as "retirement age"? At a societal level, how can new demographic ratios of old-to-young drive growth and wealth creation?

As Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has said, "[I]f we can make sure that we are stretching life in the middle and not just at the end, these extra years can be as productive as any other." What Chan is suggesting, essentially, is that we re-imagine middle age and old age to realize aging as a time of health, activity and productivity.

Can American Leadership Fill the Void?

Central to this new construction of aging is leadership- leadership at both national and global levels. This leadership needs to bring together diverse public policy initiatives. And there is much to build upon in the past year. The European Union dedicated 2012 as the European Year for Active Ageing. The United Nations held a highlevel summit on non-communicable diseases-diseases like Alzheimer's, diabetes and cancer that mostly afflict older populations. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation "recognized that the rapid rise in non-communicable diseases ... poses a fundamental negative influence on the future of economic growth." And the WHO dedicated World Health Day to "Aging and Health: Good Health Adds Life to Years."

Each of these initiatives is valuable, but they are only creating a simmer. Bringing them to a full boil requires leadership. The U.S. Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats has recognized as much, saying, "Working together, we can turn the longevity bequeathed us from the 20th century into a positive driver of growth, contribution and economic activity in the 21st."

Through Hormats and others, this global leadership void can be filled by the United States. In doing so, America could guide the world to a healthier, more productive future, but it could also strengthen its economy. In this globalized era where national economies are interconnected, the U.S. economy can only thrive with a healthy global economy. U.S. businesses require a strong global consumer market. As many economists argue, the rising global middle classespecially in the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China)- is fueling American exports and creating domestic wealth here. If new roles and opportunities are created for aging populations around the world, the United States can sharpen its competitive edge. …