THE BLOG

White House Conference on Aging or a Summit on Seniors?

06/15/2015 12:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

The White House has announced it will hold its White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) on July 13th. This event is held once every decade, as initially mandated by Congress in 1965.

Fifty years in, what's new? If you have a look at the WHCOA website, it doesn't seem like much. Take this headline as evidence: "2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act, as well as the 80th anniversary of Social Security."

Apart from celebrating institutional endurance, the WHCOA sees itself as "an opportunity to... look ahead to the issues that will help shape the landscape for older Americans for the next decade."

This is an antiquated approach that will not lead to the innovations and policy changes needed in order to turn 21st century longevity into a social and economic opportunity for all Americans as we age. Not just older Americans. In fact, if the White House is serious about several of its clearly critical themes -- take elder abuse, for example -- it will use the unique symbol of a once a decade event on aging to debunk the myths and stigma of aging and in the course give stronger and more powerful voice precisely to topics like elder abuse.

There's still time for the Obama White House to get the Conference right. Here are five ways to think about "the issues" of an aging America:

  1. A path for economic growth: As the White House announced its date for the WHCOA, the rest of us are forced to acknowledge that Q1 2015 GDP switched from a 0.2 percent growth estimate to a contraction of 0.7 percent. Conventional wisdom explains these numbers as the result of global risk uncertainty and bad weather.

What's really driving these numbers is the more profound structural change brought by the aging of the population. Indeed, the global economy is now indelibly marked by the twin demographic features of historic longevity and continued decline in births. This is particularly evident in Japan and China, across Europe, and also here in America.

Japan, in particular, is the "canary in the coalmine." Its two-decade march of economic decline is perfectly correlated with its misalignment of economic policies to 21st century demographics. For Japan, the U.S., and the rest of the world, the aging "issue" is how to change culture, policies, and institutions to trigger a re-imagining of "old age" into a time of health, activity, and productivity.

As the WHCOA rightly recognizes, there will be those who need care. And this must not be overlooked. But just ask Japan what happens when you assume 30-40 percent of your population is to be considered uninvolved in economic activity. The WHCOA staff might look equally to their colleagues at Commerce, Treasury, and the Council of Economic Advisors as to HHS for ideas on America's approach to aging.

  • It's the children, stupid: In 1965 or even 1985, an aging conference could have been forgiven for focusing alone on topics like elder abuse and long-term care. But today, as our children and their children can expect to live their 90s and beyond, a conference on aging must explore how longevity shapes the entire "life course." 20th-century conceptions of work, retirement, and education have little relevance for careers that may last six decades.
  • The McKinsey Institute is getting it right. In their new book, Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends, McKinsey sets population aging - along with tech innovation, urbanization, and connectedness - as a strategic lens for examining global challenges and opportunities. Viewed as such, aging becomes a question of how public policies and institutions can be reformed to fit 21st century demography. So, yes, let's indeed solve for elder abuse, as the WHCOA sets out to do. But let's also stop assuming that what we created in the 20th century can work today.

    This isn't about "old people." It's about creating an America that can grow and prosper in the 21st century in which all of us, including our seniors will have better, more productive, happier and healthier lives.

  • Outside the Beltway: One of the most interesting places where innovation for aging is occurring is our cities. From New York to Portland, cities are adopting the World Health Organization's Age Friendly Cities Principles in order to make our infrastructure, education, small business growth, and health and social services "age friendly." Even with this impressive development, more needs to be done. The first step could be for the WHCOA to host a panel of mayors who have been engaged in these activities. It's be an opportunity to raise awareness, share best practices, and re-frame the conversation about what it means to age in America.
  • Outside Government: It's not only cities that are becoming age friendly - but also businesses. The age friendly business is one that not only has growth strategies to harness the explosion of commercial power from the 55+ demographic, but also strategies in place to attract and retain the top talent.
  • Take, for example, Bank of America Merrill Lynch's innovations on how to save and retire for our unprecedented life spans. Or Intel's vision for "the Internet of Things," where wearables are for aging needs as much as Millennial fun. Or Nestle Skin Health and its new SHIELD Centers, which connect aging to skin needs. Not to mention Aegon (or, Transamerica here in the U.S.), which has rolled out a global institute on retirement and publishes an annual global retirement study to calculate its Retirement Readiness Index.

  • Finding the Money: As we prepare for the 2015 WHCOA, let us be open to private sector solutions in areas once reserved for governments and non-profits. As we have seen, the private sector has much to contribute to the questions raised by longevity and population aging. One representative example is caregiving in which a topic of great interest at the WHCOA already - elder abuse--would benefit enormously. We're seeing more and more caregiving move into the home, and the industry is growing rapidly as a result. Non-medical home-based care is a compassionate, family-oriented, and efficient way of meeting caregiving needs while also freeing up public funds to care for those who are really in need. A longevity economy is a win for everyone living in an aging America.
  • If the WHCOA is only, or even principally, about finding better ways to take care of seniors -- as it was in 1965 -- then it is missing a huge opportunity. And, in fact, it's not a conference on aging at all. It should be called the White House Conference on Senior Care. So let's put the aging back in this aging conference, and use it to prompt new, innovative thinking on ways that this massive, unprecedented transformation can become the foundation for the third American Century. If we get this one right, I can assure you seniors will also benefit in ways today barely even imagined.