Queen Elizabeth and Us

04/25/2016 09:50 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2017

As we celebrate the Queen of England's 90th birthday, apart from the pomp and fun for the royals, the moment calls attention to the miracle of widespread global longevity.

We have always had old people. Michelangelo, for example, first became the architect for St Peter's Basilica at 74 and was even older as he took on the Sistine Chapel. But never in the history of humanity have we had so many living for so long, with the reasonable expectation that there will be 2 billion by mid-century. This is new and it is huge. And it demands we change both our thinking and how we live.

Nor is it inconsequential that 21st century longevity is occurring exactly as we experience depopulation, with a near perfect correlation to modernization and urbanization across the planet. In the Queen's own home of England, where there are hundreds of thousands of ninety-somethings and a birth rate well under replacement at about 1.8 births/woman, the island is on track to have more old than young by as soon as 2020, as will the rest of us. Just look at how the oldest society on the planet -- Japan -- is struggling, as in the newly released OECD Report issued just last week.

The shift in proportion of old to young is at least as big a deal as our longevity itself, with impacts on public policy -- how do we afford 20th century public policy programs around health, education and pensions in a world where there are millions more in all our countries over 60 than in traditional working age? Of course, we cannot, which is why we need a profound re-imagination of many iconic notions embedded in 20th century institutions: retirement at 65? Education finishing at 18 or 21? Healthcare targeting disease as opposed to wellness and functional ability as we age?

But equally important is the shift in markets. The $15 trillion of what is increasingly called the silver or longevity economy is not only huge, but eclipses the apparently established focus on Millennials and younger consumers. In America alone, the fact that 70% of American disposable income is held by the 60 and over demographic leads businesses to rethink and reimagine products and services for the new 21st century economy.

So as we celebrate the Queen's 90th birthday, with her husband accompanying her at 94, here are a few parallel shifts we might also celebrate to mark the promise of 21st century aging as a central part of her subjects' lives, and the lives of the rest of us on the planet:

1. That the UK would choose a private-sector home care company, Home Instead Senior Care, to receive this year's Queen's Award for innovation, clearly shows the importance of elder caregiving in today's world, where the 85+ demographic is the fastest growing in countries across the world, including the UK, the US, Japan, China and broadly Europe. Equally, it is noteworthy that the Queen chose home care -- perhaps the ultimate people-based service business -- to receive her innovation award. Innovation comes in many forms -- technology being one. But in our era of aging societies, it is welcome to include this sort of market innovation, as home care advances beyond 20th century traditional institutional and hospital based elder care.

2. If part of the change required to align aging societies with economic growth is to reimagine and redefine 20th century retirement norms, it will be employers themselves who will drive the necessary change. BlackRock, the largest asset manager on the planet, is one of the leaders as they launch, first in the UK, their new Research Institute dedicated precisely to welcoming, creating and disseminating new ideas on how we work and "retire" in our 21st century. BlackRock surely understands that the Queen and the Prince are not the only ones living into their nineties. There is a robust market out there waiting to be tapped!

3. Or, consider how the World Health Organization is re-defining global public health, not only to address the diseases of aging -- Alzheimer's, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer -- but to enable a greater functional ability. Nestle Skin Health's new SHIELD Centers are leading innovations for greater functional ability as they open in New York City and Shanghai. The "Invitation to Work Together" expresses how this marketplace is also transforming through innovations aligned to the needs of more active and healthier aging:

So, as we wish the Queen a Happy Birthday, it is no small matter that her great grandchildren will live to be one hundred or more, not just because they have her "good genes," but because that's where global society is headed. Recognizing this as truly transformational will require attention from political leadership as well as the markets. As Ken Dychtwald, founder and CEO of Age-Wave said just yesterday in the context of America's presidential campaign, "This demographic transformation will create new social contribution and marketplace opportunities, as well as potentially devastating medical, fiscal, and intergenerational crises. Are we prepared? No. Are the candidates addressing this age wave and offering innovative solutions? No. WHY NOT?"

Why Not, indeed?