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Health and Work in the Age of Aging

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World Health Day is upon us. Each year, the World Health Organization chooses a topic of global concern, and this year they've selected what can only be described as the most significant social, economic and political development of our time: global population aging. If Twitter offers any indication, the WHO has hit it big this year. The topic of "Aging and Health" is resonating with audiences around the world. According to the WHO, "Yesterday's global live chat #AddHealth2Life for World Health Day 7Apr achieved more than 20 million impressions!!! @WHO thank you all!"

This resonance is phenomenal, and it is occurring within a milieu in which aging populations are beginning to take the stage. In England, the ever-venerable Oxford University offered its London Lecture to Dr. Sarah Harper, a gerontologist who delivered a speech entitled, "The 21st Century: The Last Century of Youth?" And on this side of the Atlantic, Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats and the Council on Foreign Relations made the case that aging populations are integral to future economic growth and deserve a place in our foreign policy framework.

Yet, for all this attention, many are still failing to understand that today's financial issues -- from Greek debt to the future of the Euro -- largely stem from the demographic mismatch between 20th century health and retirement benefits and 21st century demographics. It is time to restructure how we work and retire, and it is time to integrate health as the common denominator of our thinking.

And that is exactly what the World Health Organization is addressing on World Health Day 2012. Healthy lifestyles can transform aging from a time of dependency and disability to one of vitality and productivity. In other words, as the WHO shows in its video, we need to "add life to years." If we are going to "save" Greece, the euro, and other currencies and economies around the world, we must begin by re-scripting the social contract for 21st century and aligning it to aging populations.

Indeed, as life-spans routinely stretch into the 80s and 90s and as birth rates continue to drop to unprecedented lows, the aging segment of the global population must remain in good health so they can contribute to social and economic life and drive economic competitiveness. With two billion people over 60 by mid-century, our demographic balance has tilted, and the "old" will soon outnumber the "young." Consider that by 2050, 33 different countries will have more than 10 million people 60 or over, including China with 437 million, India with 324 million and the U.S. with 107 million. With such a bulge at the "old" end of the demographic spectrum, global economic and social health will increasingly depend upon healthy aging.

While this is a pressing issue for the U.S., it is even more urgent for nations in Europe and Asia. Relatively speaking, the U.S. has a stable birth rate compared to its economic peers. For the U.S., its 2.08 birth rate (number of babies per woman in her lifetime) ranks it far above Canada (1.59), China (1.55), Russia (1.43), Germany (1.41), Italy (1.40), Japan (1.39), South Korea (1.23) and Taiwan (1.16). These rates are critical to economic trajectories, because they reveal how many working-aged people will soon be able to pay for public and private "entitlement" systems. In Europe, where the state-funded pension scheme still operates on demographic realities of bygone eras, these low birth rates are especially foreboding.

Birth rates, however, only tell part of the story. It is also necessary to look at ratios of those who are "working aged" to those who are past "traditional retirement." In the U.S. today, there are roughly 186 million people aged 20-64, with around 45 million aged 65+. Yet, in less than thirty years, this balance will tilt significantly. By 2040, the "working aged" population -- those 20-64 -- will grow just over 10% to 207 million, but the 65+ population will almost double to over 80 million. Thus, the long-standing financial entitlement schemes, both public and private, will literally feel twice the pressure that they do today. In G-8 countries like Italy, Germany, Spain, and Japan, where upwards of 40% of the populations will be over 60 by mid-century, healthy aging will prove to make or break economic success.

Ultimately, it all points to one indubitable conclusion: we need to extend working lives. Yet, we can only work longer if we age in healthy ways. And that's why this World Health Day is dedicated to healthy aging.

Let's make sure their message continues to resonate. In the next few days, let's spread the word. As Sarah Harper's lecture shows, the course of population aging is entirely predictable. All over the world, we're getting older. It's time to align our social and economic lives to our new demographic truths.