The campaign season is fully underway, as both President Obama and Governor Romney spar for positioning on American leadership and foreign policy. And it seems the two competitors finally agree on something. During their foreign policy speeches at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Reno, both Obama and Romney recalled magazine-man Henry Luce's ever-nostalgic ideal of "American Greatness."
President Obama put it this way, "If anyone tries to tell you that our greatness has passed, that America is in decline, you tell them this: Just like the 20th century, the 21st is going to be another great American Century." And Governor Romney claimed, "I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century."
Not surprisingly, it was Governor Romney who predicated the potential of "American greatness" upon a reinvigorated economy. But even Romney -- a veteran of private equity -- failed to take the argument a step further. As Romney well knows, Standard and Poor's -- the gold-standard of financial insight -- has claimed that "No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances, and policy making as the irreversible rate at which the world's population is aging."
Of course, in the wake of S&P's downgrade of the U.S.'s credit rating, it could be argued that the financial services company speaks loudly and carries a small stick. However, the conclusions they reach in "Global Aging 2010: An Irreversible Truth" are incontrovertible. Consider that, by mid-century, the world will have more people over 60 than under 14, and many nations in Europe and Asia will have over one-third of their population past the twentieth-century notion of "retirement age," with Brazil, China, Mexico, Turkey and other developing nations catching up fast. And here in the U.S., there will be over 90 million people aged over 60 by 2030, a full 50% more than there is today.
And so "American greatness" -- in no small part -- can and must be achieved by forging new paths for healthy, active and productive aging. Indeed, it's not only a fiscal imperative, but also tremendous untapped resource. As we live into our eighties and beyond, who -- except for perhaps the new socialist government in France -- could contend that retirement by 60 is either personally desirable or economically palatable?
The economic potential of the over-60 crowd could provide the foundation for another "century of American greatness" that both Obama and Romney promise. And it could answer Condoleezza Rice's recent challenge that "the U.S. must overcome its reluctance to lead." As countries around the world struggle to integrate aging populations into their economic growth strategies, there is a calling for American leadership. This is reflected not only in our political dialogues, but also in the policy, intellectual and think tank world. The recent initiative"Renewing America" launched by the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year testifies to the growing visibility and importance of global population aging.
If Obama and Romney want to recapture American greatness, they need to develop strategies so that older workers remain relevant and vital economic contributors. If they do, there is a two-fold win. On one hand, the "seniors" will continue to create wealth and contribute to economic growth. On the other hand, they will shorten the time that they live on public and private entitlement systems - systems that are becoming increasingly meager as ratios of old to young become further imbalanced and unsustainable.
Of course, this argument raises a difficult question: How can older adults remain active in economic life? There are number of answers. One would be to encourage policies that keep older workers healthier. Another would be to make changes to the workplace to accommodate older adults, both physically and mentally. And yet another could be to create policies that enable workers who care for disabled parents the flexibility they need in order to fulfill roles as both carer and employee.
These are all indispensable pursuits, and each deserves attention and follow-through. But there's also another possibility that too often gets overlooked. In our Silicon Valley-centric view of entrepreneurship, we ignore the entrepreneurial potential of older adults. According to the Kauffman Foundation, 20% of all entrepreneurs in the U.S. are between the ages of 55-64, and almost half are over the age of 45.
The stereotype of a young kid in blue jeans and flip-flops inventing the next digital whatever is more Hollywood than reality. As the Kauffman research shows, the face of entrepreneurship in the U.S. is often adorned with wrinkles and gray hair.
As the summer drags on, and as the candidates vie for positioning on American leadership and foreign affairs, aging populations could be the trump card. Though many consider aging to be a crisis, it can become a "demographic dividend" that provides the U.S. with an competitive edge. If aging populations can stay healthy, socially active and economically productive, then the stubborn American economy will get a much-needed jumpstart. It's a key to success domestically, and it could become the platform from which the U.S. builds another great century -- a century that will witness the over-60 population surpass two billion. Indeed, the world will be watching and learning how America leads on integrating the aging into economic life, and it is a debate that deserves more attention than anything Governor Romney has to say about security at the London Olympics.