THE BLOG
11/07/2012 12:50 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Congratulations, Mr. President -- Now Lead!

Dear Mr. President,

First, allow me to congratulate you on your victory.

Second, please let me suggest that it's time to get to business. You won the 2012 race largely on your vision of "economic recovery." The American people have put their trust in you. Now, please do not be lured by short-term solutions. The financial calamity of 2008 is still lingering and rubbing salt into our economic wounds, and your masterful sloganeering about "recovery" that won you the swing-states will amount to very little now that you have the office for the next four years.

In fact, the focus on the quick-fix has been much of the problem, as it has distracted us from focusing on the deeper, more structural economic issues. As Standard and Poor's has contended in "Global Aging 2010: An Irreversible Truth," the financial crisis "interrupted government efforts to manage the burden of aging-related spending." And now, according to the Wall Street Journal, this spending is poised to "surge" as global populations age, resulting in "deterioration in public finances." In fact, barring urgent and major reform with age-related spending, an incredible 60% of nations will be bankrupt by mid-century.

So, congratulations again, Mr. President. The country you have been elected to run will have a debt of 415% of GDP by 2050 if current senior-spending-sprees are maintained. The demographic transformation in the U.S. and abroad -- brought about by longer lives and lowered fertility rates -- has been both masked and exacerbated by the financial crisis. Now, the grace period for ignoring it has come to an end. Indeed, now you must lead us in creating a new culture where work and retirement are aligned to a world in which there are more people over 60 than under 15. You must end the political fascination with finding creative ways to fund 20th-century programs and norms that have no place in years ahead.

On the campaign trail, you and your mighty opponent said much about costs of healthcare. You each offered competing visions, and ultimately, Americans believed that your plan was better. Yet neither of you said much about retirement -- and the nation-wide need to create profoundly new approaches to it. As 21st century demographics emerge, it is a national imperative to move beyond Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 85-year-old program.

People are starting to get this, and they're looking for leadership. Politically, it is easy to see why "80 should be the new retirement age" wasn't part of your platform. Though many Americans understand the need to work longer, it remains less popular than "more jobs for the middle class." But, now that you're not campaigning, have a look at the facts. Recent Bank of America Merrill Lynch research reveals that Americans are planning to work longer because of "rotten nest eggs." And a Merrill Edge Report finds that even the "mass affluent" are "pushing back retirement amid concerns about the cost of health care and funding their retirement." The financial crisis, we can see, has hit population aging head on and created some unfriendly economic scenarios.

Mr. President, would it be too much to ask that you include population aging in your first 100 days agenda? This is a global issue -- and, truth be told, the U.S. is in a better position than many -- and it could help establish you as the preeminent global leader. Only a few months ago, AEGON , the European-headquartered global financial institution, revealed similar research that suggests the cloudy, troublesome picture of retirement. Aegon CEO Alex Wynaendts got it exactly right at the time, stating: "A concerted effort is needed to reconsider traditional retirement models and provide greater flexibility for phased retirement. If current pension systems are not adapted to the new realities of longer life spans and declining government and employer funding, the burdens placed on society will be a source of even greater economic and societal turmoil in the future."

So, Mr. President: As you lead us through this second decade of the 21st century, it is time to pay political attention to the policies and institutional reforms that are needed in order to transform population aging from an economic catastrophe into an opportunity. If it seems like a political minefield, it isn't. There are three wins your leadership on this issue can bring to you and your party.

First, your leadership will re-establish the U.S. as the preeminent global leader. All countries in the world are aging, and both developed and developing countries are looking for solutions to this "demographic time bomb." With the right ideas and solutions, you can re-establish the U.S. as the leader.

Specifically, second, you can lead Americans to better financial futures. More and more, Americans are struggling to figure out how to mesh 21st century longevity with their 20th century ideas of working and retirement. But this square peg can't fit into this round hole. Take the lead in dispelling the antiquated ideas of retiring when FDR said we could.

Third, you can help hold us back from that now-mythological "fiscal cliff." As S&P said, age-related spending is being ignored, despite its power to propel us to bankruptcy. Your leadership can align our economic fears with our actual spending problems.

Mr. President, congratulations again on winning what pundits and tweeters have called "one of the most important presidential elections in history." This valuation, of course, holds no meaning as a prediction. We'll only know the importance of your presidency after you leave office. If you can lead us in turning population aging into an economic success story, then this hyperbole will prove true: your presidency will be one of the most important in the history of the U.S.

Michael Hodin writes the Age and Reason blog for The Fiscal Times