Politicians and marketers take note: by mid-century, nearly 20 percent of the world's population will be women aged 50 and over, numbering nearly two-billion in total. Indeed, as the global population ages, the female demographic surges ahead. Women, through a complex mix of genes and behaviors, live longer than men, accounting for nearly three-in-five adults over 70, according to estimates from the United Nations.
As emerging markets like China and Brazil struggle to reinvigorate growth, and as richer nations dig out of prolonged recession, it's not just politicians and marketers who should take heed. The demographic older women is of superlative importance for economists and decision-makers who affect economic life.
So far, they're underappreciated.
A case in point is Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who got the matter half-right in his recent editorial. In the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Shinzo argues that "unleashing the power of Womenomics is an absolute must if Japan's growth is to continue." The Prime Minister is right that women "hold the key to enhancing growth," but he's overlooked the "Agenomics" aspect of the argument. Indeed, it's not just that women are key to driving economic growth. Older women are one of the greatest untapped economic resources globally.
Prime Minister Abe's "Womenomics" must be fused with "Agenomics" in order to be a viable, energetic economic strategy in the 21st century.
It's ironic that the Japanese Prime Minister of all people would overlook aging. Japan, the world's "oldest" nation, will very soon have one-third of its population over 60 and well over 40% by mid-century. Without aging women workers producing at the highest levels in the workforce, there is little potential for growth.
While other developed and emerging markets may not have Japan's ratio of old-to-young, Japan is a litmus test of where the world is headed. And the oversight of Agenomics offers a valuable lesson: even the most vital economies stagnate with unproductive aging populations. Japan's decades-long economic funk can be largely explained by its failure to keep leverage the economic potential of its aging population.
Even with the recognition that older women are vital to economic success, a foundational question remains: what can be done to enable older women to produce at the highest levels?
There are a number of ways to answer this question, but the most essential is around health. Older women must age in good health if they are going to be active, productive members of society and the economy.
New research by the World Health Organization suggests that the front-lines of women's health has shifted from maternal health to age-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Thanks to decades of public health success with maternal and reproductive health -- led by the WHO and other organizations -- women are living longer and now battle NCDs.
The World Health Organization has taken the lead on bringing awareness to this new global health priority. New research by the WHO tracks global mortality trends and patterns in older women, and it shows how cases of maternal death are declining as deaths caused by age-related non-communicable diseases are rising. The WHO examines the NCD mortality among women in low-, middle-, and high-income nations, and it finds that "the gap in life expectancy between women aged 50 years and older in rich and poor countries is growing." For emerging markets to reinvigorate economic growth, better health among older women will be key.
Women's health is, undoubtedly, the at the foundation of economic recovery and fiscal sustainability, and the WHO is right to recognize it as such. But the real opportunity is to find ways to position the over-50 female demographic to become one of the 21st century's most economically vital.
Here are a few ideas for businesses globally:
Respect Caregiving: In the U.S., there are 65 million informal caregivers, two-thirds of whom are women. There is a shortage of reliable data for other parts of the world, but anecdotal evidence suggests the gendered pattern holds globally. This is no small thing for an employer to understand. The physical and emotional requirements demanded by informal caregiving are more significant than is generally recognized, and this lack of recognition often leads the caregiving employee to absenteeism, presenteeism, and premature withdrawal from the workforce. This is unfortunate for both employer and employee. The ReACT Program (Respect a Caregiver's Time) is seeking to raise awareness and promote policies that accommodate and account for the rise of employees who also act as caregivers. There is no easy answer, but awareness and a proactive approach are good first steps.
It is also interesting that a new formal, home-based caregiving model is emerging to meet growing caregiving demands. Informal caregiving (as discussed above) and long-term institutional caregiving (the 20th century norm) can't cover the spectrum of needs. Non-medicalized, personal, home-based care may prove to be much of the answer.
Facilitate returns to the workforce: Though the balance is shifting in unprecedented ways, it is still the norm globally for women to raise children. In both developed and developing countries, women often spend decades out of the workforce in the so-called "prime" of their careers. Re-entry into work later in life can be very difficult. This is a loss, as the skills gained at home can translate well into the workforce. Businesses can gain competitive advantage by figuring out how to maximize these skills and assist with the transition from the home economy into the commercial economy.
One of the 20th century's greatest successes was the integration of women into the economy. Now, one of the 21st century's greatest challenges is keeping older women at the heart of the very economy that women have created. This applies across sectors - from health and consumer goods to travel and even fashion. And it is equally true in developed nations like Japan, emerging nations from Brazil to China, Turkey to Mexico, and developing agrarian nations across all continents.