Here's one thing both conservatives and liberals can agree upon: the Republican Party is at a crossroads. Some may label it an "identity crisis," and others may call it a "new set of challenges," but, following President Obama's thumping of Mitt Romney last November, it is clear that Republicans are re-thinking their strategy for the coming years.
This introspection was on display at the recent CPAC -- the Conservative Political Action Conference. And Jeb Bush's recent piece in the Wall Street Journal essentially declares that past Republican strategies won't work for the future. And while Bush's "The Road to Republican Revival" gets many things right -- especially his claim about the U.S.'s economic future being rooted in technological innovation -- he gets one thing squarely wrong.
Bush claims, "This country is younger than all other industrialized nations, and if we get immigration right, we're going to stay young." His mathematics is correct, but his implication is wrong. It is not youth and the so-called "demographic dividend" that will drive American economic growth in the 21st century. It is the U.S.'s aging population that must contribute to social and economic life for the U.S. to rise out of its prolonged funk and re-establish itself as the preeminent global leader.
What Bush does is exactly what his "road to revival" argument tries not to do: he uses old thinking to try to solve new problems. Just as the Republican Party is re-thinking its priorities, we all must re-think what it means to age in the 21st century. With 77 million Boomers passing into "retirement age," neither party's vision of American growth and prosperity will come to pass if we continue to age as we did last century. Incredible breakthroughs in medicine and healthcare are giving us historically long lives. Now we need to figure out how to use them wisely. And, to capture our aging population as a new source of economic growth.
As the Republicans gathered in Washington to chart the future of the party, it may have been wiser to meet in Chicago, where the American Society on Aging (ASA) had gathered to discuss the competitive value of the U.S.'s aging population. What was discussed in Chicago was a far more relevant and insightful to understand the dynamics of American competitiveness in the 21st century. The "demographic dividend" underlying the ASA's discourse sees older adults as the competitive advantage. That is the key to 21st century economic success, and that's what Jeb Bush and the other Republicans must recognize if they wish to lead the country to prosperity in the years ahead.
But how can this potential be unlocked?
According to the ASA conference in Chicago, one key is the "Age-friendly City." An Age-friendly City captures the opportunity of population aging by keeping aging adults socially engaged and economically active. Too often, older adults are forced into roles of isolation and dependency because of the environments in which they live. The Age-friendly City studies the needs of its older populations and makes necessary corrections to meet them, and it enables older adults to pursue healthy lifestyles and invest in wellness.
The Age-friendly City has taken off globally, and countries from England to China to the U.S. to Brazil are piloting programs. But, perhaps the most exciting new idea was articulated by the World Health Organization's John Beard, who asked if the U.S. could become the world's first "age-friendly country." If so, it could capture that demographic dividend so central to -- but conspicuously missing from -- Jeb Bush's vision of American prosperity.
The U.S.'s aging population is its greatest untapped economic resource, and as it looks to regain its global competitive edge, it must not fall back on the 20th century assumption that youth is the only key to economic growth and success. This thinking implicitly accepts that the role for the older among us is to be taken care of. In this new, older world, we can't opine for demographics of the past. We need to capitalize upon what we have. It's a lesson both Democrats and Republicans must learn.
It's the only reliable road to revival.