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Best American Cities for Successful Aging

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Everyone loves a good ranking -- whether it's for law schools, college football or Scorsese movies -- and the Milken Institute's new "Best Cities for Successful Aging" is eliciting the predictable flood of "likes," objections and re-tweets. But what's amazing about the reaction is how often it is being misunderstood. It's not a simple redo of where to retire, but a platform from which the U.S. can recapture its competitive edge in the twenty-first century by transforming into promise what many regard as the perils of an aging population.

The Milken Institute, quite clearly, has stated that the index isn't simply another subjective, anecdotal ranking to feed coffee-shop banter. According to Milken, the index shouldn't be "confused... with the many rankings and opinion polls that identify the sunniest or most inexpensive places to live out retirement." As Paul Irving, the institute's Chief Operating Officer, has claimed, a "successful aging" city is one that is "safe, affordable, engaging, and connected... one that offers quality healthcare and an active lifestyle, ready access to transportation, education, employment and recreation."

In other words, a city that enables "successful aging" is one that keeps older adults engaged in social and economic life. It provides pathways for them to stay healthy while participating in economic activity and wealth creation. This is an essential attribute for the successful American city of the twenty-first century. It must accommodate new demographic realities.

But this point is being overlooked in the mainstream media. Consider, for example, USA Today's report which claims, "Seniors looking for the best city to grow older in may be better off flocking to the Midwest than sunny Florida." While this may be a cute lead -- with a perplexing metaphorical use of "flock" -- it's exactly the point that the Milken Report is not making.

And this is what's really insightful about the Milken Index. Population aging is a global phenomenon, and the countries that figure out how to keep their aging adults active, engaged and productive will be the ones who can be the most economically competitive. If Milken's "successful aging" index is the opening salvo that sets up the U.S.'s own competition for the crown of "best city in which to age," everyone in the U.S. will benefit -- not just those in Provo and Madison, the two cities that rank first and second, respectively, in Milken's list of top metro areas.

The cities that fare well in the Milken ranking -- like Boston, Salt Lake City and Ann Arbor -- have been quick to cover the story and note how well they did. While some celebration is understandable and justified, let's hope that the next round of the media cycle comes from places like El Paso and Memphis -- cities that didn't do so well in the rankings. Let's hope that journalists and policy-makers in the lower-ranking cities use the Milken report as a wakeup call. Or perhaps even the Romney and Obama camps will use the index as a tool to evaluate the steps ahead for recapturing American greatness.

This argument by the Milken Institute is worth getting right. If their index is reduced to a cheap, fly-by-night top-ten list of "best places to be old," the whole point is missed. And it's a lesson the U.S. can't afford to miss. On the global arena, it's an insight that has already gained significant traction. The World Health Organization's "Age-Friendly Cities" initiative is well underway, and there's been growing interest among cities from Shanghai to Dublin.

As readers across the U.S. and the globe read the Milken index, it is essential to keep in mind that "successful aging" is not just about finding the "best city" in which to retire. To be sure, this is an important part of it, but successful aging means staying engaged and connected. It means finding a place where one can stay active, relevant and vital into one's 60's, 70's and 80's. It's about the role that American cities can play transforming population aging into opportunity. And if we can achieve this, then we will then have the social and financial bandwidth to help those who really do need help -- whether the "oldest old" or even the young.

With the American population aging at an unprecedented rate and speed, it is one of the U.S.'s top imperatives to find ways to keep this large cohort healthy, active and productive. For both public and private sectors, there can be no success or fiscal sustainability if a full one-fifth of the population is drawing entitlements without contributing.

The Milken Institute's study should be applauded for its criteria and its goals, and let's make sure it isn't treated as another flippant ranking system to be tweeted once and then forgotten. This is as much about America's economic competitiveness and global leadership as it is about a nice place for old people to sit poolside or walk the back-nine. As Milken COO Irving said, "We hope the findings spark national discussion and, at the local level, generate virtuous competition among cities to galvanize improvement in the social structures that serve those seniors." Such a competition, to be sure, will both serve citizens of all ages and promote American global interests in world of aging societies.