05/04/2012 02:33 pm ET Updated Jul 04, 2012

2012 Graduates: You'll Live Long, Now Prosper

Congratulations, Class of 2012! The world is your oyster!

Then again, maybe not. The Wall Street Journal suggests that you should neither "try to be great" nor "use your prodigious talents to mess things up." And The New York Times thinks that your $1 trillion in student loans will keep you out of the housing market for years to come. Sorry about that.

As we celebrate your graduation, the world outside is undergoing nothing short of an unprecedented transformation. The models of life that you've learned from your parents and grandparents are already obsolete. The world's population is aging -- and you will live a life far longer than any of the billions of people who have come before you.

Personally, it should give you much to celebrate. When your venerable university was founded, the graduating class could only hope to see age 50. Now, thanks to incredible advancements in health, medicine, and sanitation, you can aim for as high as 90 or 100.

But these increases in longevity raise some serious questions, chiefly: With all these extra decades of life, how do you expect to stay vital and relevant into your 70s, 80s, and 90s? How do you plan to contribute to your familial and societal economies?

If this sounds too futuristic, it shouldn't. There are seven billion people on this planet, and soon nearly one-third of us will be over 60. The trajectories of aging that your parents and grandparents experienced are no longer relevant. There is simply no way for a local, national, or global economy to sustain itself if one-third of its citizens are "retired."

So, Class of 2012, your challenge is this: How can you help create a world where "seniors" contribute at the highest levels to social and economic life? How can you help recreate our 20th century institutions so that older generations remain vital, relevant and productive? And how can you create new institutions for your children throughout the 21st century?

Think all of this is uninteresting or irrelevant right now? Wait until you get your first paycheck. If you think you're paying too much for Medicare and Social Security, what do you think will happen as 77 million American baby boomers in this country pass into retirement in the next two decades? The U.S. government already spends 250 percent more on seniors than it does on children. And this challenge is even more pronounced across the planet. The combination of longer lives and lower birth rates is impacting countries from China to Brazil, and from Germany to Australia. And this is all connected to the debt and fiscal crisis you read about daily in Greece, Japan, Spain -- or the state of California.

So let's all agree -- graduates as well as your families, friends, mentors and others -- that in this unprecedented era of aging populations, we must do two things:

1. Rethink what it means to age. Currently, the concept of living to 90 instead of 70 means that someone will be "old" for another 20 years. This narrow thinking comes nowhere near to capturing the tremendous potential brought about by the miracle of longevity. In fact, that magic number 65 that still exists as a retirement goal was a number that Otto von Bismarck picked in the 19th century when the average life span in Europe was closer to age 47. Exactly how does that compute today?

As you think about life with your new diploma -- and as you look with great excitement toward a new job, a new educational opportunity, a new land that you might travel, or whatever choice you may make -- don't even think about retiring at age 65. Instead, think about what you can accomplish in your 80s. It's not too soon to think this way! It will change your entire life's course -- as it should.

2. Re-invent education so that it becomes a lifelong pursuit. The notion that one's education ends somewhere in the early to mid twenties is irrelevant and foolish today. Technology is transforming our opportunity to learn and engage with the world as we speak, and different institutions, such as the workplace, are taking on the role as educator of skills, capabilities and competencies. Through lifelong education, experience can become a resource -- and that resource can have social, personal and economic value.

A couple of practical examples of this: In Washington, D.C., a nonprofit called the International Executive Service Corps (IESC) promotes private enterprise in the developing world. It recruits experienced executives to bring their talents abroad to help develop businesses in tourism, financial services, applied technologies, and more. But it can succeed only if volunteers are willing to continue their educations. If a senior executive in the telecommunications industry, for example, accepts an assignment to volunteer in Malawi, his corporate experience will certainly be a critical asset -- but he also needs to learn the social, cultural and political history of Malawi and southeastern Africa. And he'll need to study how international development and global aid organizations work. For those of you with degrees in geography, history, public policy, or Chichewa -- you know there's a lot to learn.

In the U.K., renowned universities have been grasping the potential of population aging. At Oxford, the Harris Manchester College has long catered to what it still calls "mature students," and they plan to further reconfigure the contours of the College to provide an "academic and social environment" in which adults can flourish at Oxford. And Cambridge University has established an Institute of Continuing Education.

In this country, Microsoft is a good illustration of the progressive approach. Their "WorkLife Balance" program aims to keep older workers at the heart of their business. The program promotes health and financial literacy  two areas in which Americans are ill-prepared for longer lives. Microsoft also offers professional guidance for its employees who wish to return to school.

Bottom line, Class of 2012: The hippies who brought you strobe lights and Led Zeppelin are graying -- and they've got 450 million boomer peers worldwide. Your success depends upon all of us creating new paths of education to keep these "seniors" at the cutting-edge of business, government, non-profit work and other sectors -- and in the process, pave the way for you to profoundly transform your century, since generational prosperity is interwoven and interdependent.

Congratulations, new graduates -- and good luck! You will live long, now prosper.