02/13/2012 04:00 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2012

The Aging Population: Economic Growth and Global Competitiveness

On Tuesday, February 14th, the Council on Foreign Relations is holding a meeting on the "The U.S. Aging Population as an Economic Growth Driver for Global Competitiveness." The event is timely. Standard & Poor's reports that "No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances and policy-making as the irreversible rate at which the world's population is aging."

Hence, it's vital that we create opportunities to enable older persons to contribute to their economies and communities in increasingly effective and productive ways. This will require new policies and innovations that promote healthy aging, including advances in medicine, continued learning, and cultural norms regarding aging. As population aging is elevated to the global agenda, the countries that capitalize on the increasing percentage of older adults, and are able to increasingly facilitate their meaningful contributions, will secure a strategic and competitive advantage in the years to come.

Consider the demographic facts: In the United States, 77 million baby boomers -- born from 1946 through 1964 -- are beginning to transition into retirement. In addition to increasing the strain on government-sponsored programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the retirement of this large group of Americans could also create significant losses in productivity as well as specialized skills upon which many of our companies depend.

The United States is not alone in the challenge and opportunity of population aging. By 2050, more than 2 billion people worldwide will be over the age of 60. By then, for the first time in human history, more people will be over the age of 60 than under 15. Life-spans have increased an incredible three decades in the past one hundred years and disability rates have been declining. The science of health promotion and risk factor reduction, coupled with advancements in medicine, have made it possible for a large percentage of the population to live out their lives in functional and productive ways. Longevity and health, however, are only part of the equation. As more people worldwide enter their traditional retirement years, the dependency ratio (i.e., the number of retirees per worker) will skyrocket requiring prudent review of twentieth century retirement models.

Providing opportunities for continued contribution by an aging population is an economic imperative in a growing number of countries, both developing and developed nations. This is a new challenge for developing country governments, especially in Latin America and Asia, which over the past few decades have experienced a significant drop in fertility and death rates. That's why the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) has declared economic success to be a function of the health and productivity of APEC's Member Economies' aging populations. This declaration is supported by other global organizations also working to turn aging into an opportunity. Indeed, the European Union has launched 2012 as its year of Active and Healthy Aging. And the World Health Organization (WHO) has begun an Age-Friendly Cities Program and is dedicating 2012 World Health Day to aging populations.

Equally significant is the global health community's new focus on age-related health challenges, called non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer and diabetes. A WHO Resolution calling on governments to "strengthen NCD policies to promote active aging" will be at the center of this year's World Health Assembly in May. This work is an important sign that aging is now beginning to occupy a critical and rightful place on the international agenda.

We need a focused, society-wide effort to transform our vision of aging from a time of dependency to a time of continued growth, contribution, and social and economic participation. Older adults have a wealth of experience and much to contribute. We need a sea-change not just in policies, but in attitudes about what it means to grow old. We must break the stereotype that to be old is to be inactive or dependent, and in so doing turn "population aging" into the century's greatest achievement.

Collaborating with our private sector and global partners is a path to sharing strategies and solutions to the truly global phenomenon of population aging. On the government side, an important step will be to broaden the base of collaboration on aging populations to include not only health, but also economic, finance and trade portfolios. Working together, we can turn the longevity bequeathed us from the twentieth century into a positive driver of growth, contribution, and economic activity in the twenty-first.