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King George's Aging Population

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Say what you will about the Brits, but never underestimate their ability to obsess. To wit: the 1966 World Cup championship, the Spice Girls , the Falkland Islands and the ever-shrinking empire. And now the Royal Baby, a.k.a. His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge. The British media, of course, has been swarming the event with desperate hunger, posting anything and everything that may relate to the baby's birth. And the "watch" continues: just this weekend we saw that George's birth was officially registered!

But for all the hullaballoo and hasty re-tweeting, a few pieces of the story have gone unspoken. Call it anything from oversight in the midst of raucous national euphoria to collective denial about the fiscal realities of an older 21st century. Either way, by the time George of Cambridge doth wear the crown, Britain will have changed in four dramatic ways.

First, when the little Prince begins his royal career and becomes King George VII, he will most likely be eligible for his pension. As the third in line of secession, George is going to have to wait around for a while. His grandfather, Prince Charles, is already 64, and just two months younger than the oldest prince to ever ascend to the throne. And great-grandma Elizabeth's longevity is no aberration. At 87, she is one of three million Brits over the age of 80. If longevity trends continue into the coming half-century, there's no telling how long Baby George will have to wait while Prince William adorns the throne. Who knows, maybe Mick Jagger will still be the front-man Rolling Stones. At age 70, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Second, when George of Cambridge becomes King, he'll reign over a population that is older than any this world has yet seen. If young George takes the throne by 2050 (not likely), the average British citizen will be six years his senior, or 43.3 years old. If he ascends in 2075 (more likely), the average Briton is expected to be 45 years old. As King, he'll have only limited influence over the economics of the pension system, but it should be safe to say that, with such an aged population, there's no chance it can survive as is through the 21st century. The ratio of old-to-young is simply too far tilted in the direction of the "senior citizens."

Third, as a result of the demographic changes of the 21st century -- known as population aging -- there will be unsustainable pressure for political, economic, and social institutional reform. In Britain, of course, this means the beleaguered National Health Service (NHS). Once the pride and joy of England, the NHS is today a common punching bag for Sunday afternoon public house banter. By the time Baby George is king, this will no longer be the case. The NHS simply cannot continue to exist as it is. Already, England's largest hospital trust, Barts Health NHS Trust in London, is losing ₤2 million a week, and 11 NHS trusts have collectively forecasted a ₤200 million deficit for the year. In hospitals where nearly two-thirds of people admitted are 65 and older, what will happen when the over-65 segment increases to one quarter of the total population, as will happen, in all likelihood, before George ascends? Yet, should it be surprising that an institution created in the middle of the 20th century might not be fit for 21st century demographics?

It's a special time for the British, to be sure, but perhaps George's birth should trigger a different set of questions. Rather than debate the merits of his name or the color of his pram, the British media would be wise to ask bigger, harder questions. What will Britain look like when George becomes King? With a rapidly aging population, what policies can be put in place now to trigger the changes that are needed to give King George a healthy, wealthy Britain? One that is relevant for 21st century demographic realities which, after all is becoming "age-friendly."

It's harder to tweet. But if Britain is ever to return to its former glory, it'd be a good place to start.

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