10/09/2012 09:52 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Old Before Rich?

On October 1st, the United Nations Population Fund and Helpage International released their landmark report, "Ageing in the Twenty-First Century: A Celebration and a Challenge," which is groundbreaking in its treatment of a new approach to the Global Development Agenda that has the planet's aging populations as a centerpiece of analysis and public policy change.

Not only is it a high-level compendium of the most important demographic data describing an aging world. It represents a huge collaboration among the most important NGOs and global institutions in the field - Helpage International and the International Federation on Ageing alongside the WHO. Moreover, the report is the first high visibility, global statement to take up our 21st century's demographic transformation in connection with "development." What was thought to be a "rich" country issue, is now clearly understood to be global, with exploding impact over the next few decades in places which will struggle with "getting old before they get rich." As Richard Blewitt, CEO of Helpage International, a principal partner in the Report, has said, "After years of being viewed only as a concern for developed economies, ageing is now on the point of going global: nearly 80 per cent of the world's older people will live in emerging and developing economies by mid-century." And since the report culminates with a clear call to action, stamped with UN credibility, it may prove to shape the global agenda over the coming decades.

This recognition by the UN comes while many other political leaders appear tone deaf. In the current presidential race in the United States, for example, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney have discussed how the U.S.'s aging population can help or further hinder economic growth. Each candidate propounds his view of economic recovery to all who will listen (so long as they're registered voters in a swing state), but neither has promulgated a plan for keeping some reasonable portion of the 57 million Americans over the age of 60 contributing to the economy. This oversight - or negligence - doesn't bode well for a country with 77 million baby boomers nearing traditional retirement age.

And in the European Union, how many nations will fall into irretrievable debt before Mr. Draghi or Chancellor Merkel suggest that Europe's 20th-century entitlement systems are incompatible with 21st-century demographics?

Or, how many more G-8 and G-20 summits will pass without mention that two people turn 60 every second of every minute, with its obvious impact on core questions of fiscal sustainability unless profound social and economic changes are set in motion that align to our new century's demographic realities?

If the "Ageing in the 21st Century: A Celebration or Challenge" turns out to be a true tipping point, it will not have been coincidental that another such study of equal gravitas was also just launched:

No lesser an authority than the U.S.'s National Research Council (NRC) published Aging and the Macroeconomy: Long-Term Implications of an Older Population. The text evaluates the long-term macroeconomic challenges brought by the aging of the American population, and it gives a detailed roadmap for policy reform and further research. Like the UN report, it is both exhaustive and meticulous, and - down the road - will probably shape the U.S. discourse on economic growth as shaped by our own demographic transformation.

Nor can we forget that it was just last month, the OECD and APEC held a joint-conference in Japan to discuss ways that technological development could enable more active and engaged paths of aging.

Indeed, 2012 has been a year we have witnessed any number of global landmarks to reveal the extent to which the data are pushing this complicated topic to the center of a global dialogue - from the WHO's World Health Day on healthy aging, to the EU's Year for Healthy and Active Ageing, to the UN's high-level summit to discuss non-communicable diseases, which are an issue due to their near perfect correlation with growing old.

And during this year, even the trendiest echelons of pop culture have caught on. 2011 saw the highest-grossing and most widely-attended concert in history, as U2 - a band made up of four members who are all over 50 - sold out venues from Sao Paolo to Tokyo. And New York's fashion week saw its runways feature models who have already celebrated their 80th birthday.

Ageing In The 21st Century: A Celebration And A Challenge is a big deal as it gives the full recognition that an older world - more of us over 60 than under 14 by mid century - is, indeed a global matter. That population aging isn't just a question of more old people. It is the emergence of a new kind of society where older adults must remain at the heart of social, political, and economic life. In that sense, the attention in the Report to "seniors" as dependent and victimized, while a reminder of work still to be done, can distract from the larger socio-economic phenomenon population aging represents. And that if we knew was central to 21st century social and economic challenges in Dusseldorf, Minnesota or Osaka, the UNFPA makes it equally true in Beijing, Istanbul and, yes, Lagos. And if we get this one right, then we will all have reason to celebrate. Indeed, success for everyone in the 21st century depends not only on the ability to recreate and re-imagine aging, but even more on redesigning and restructuring the institutions of society to align to this global transformation upon us.