The G-20, the world’s finance ministers and central bankers, are meeting in Japan. In keeping with the backdrop of Japan, the nation with the world’s fastest-aging population, global aging has made its way to the front of G-20’s agenda. Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso is quoted as warning the world’s financial decision makers that they must act now to take “effective measures against it.”
Those who are invested in making the world a better place for older adults have reason to cheer such a move. The placement of population aging on the G-20’s agenda represents an “historic first” for the international forum. A report published by the Global Coalition on Aging in the lead-up to the meeting targets healthcare, finance, and urban design as three “critical topics” for policymakers—all important spheres for reform and innovation. Digging deeper into the report, one finds lifelong education, age-friendly communities, and improving quality-of-life as opposed to merely extending life being named as priorities—all of which I have myself have argued for in the past.
But the announcement of G-20’s attention to global aging nonetheless has me disappointed. Why? It’s all about the language.
We’ll start with the warning of Taro Aso. “Effective measures” brings to mind dire language in other policy domains, such as that used by public health officials to command action against the flu or a modern epidemic. Elsewhere, in articles in major publications leading up to the forum,we find global aging being spoken of as a “global risk,” something that is “sounding alarms,” a “challenge” to be faced, like a dragon bellowing and crashing at the gates.
While it is difficult to identify when longer life, longevity, became rhetorically synonymous with crisis, it is sad that the G-20 is framing aging in terms of risks alone — ballooning healthcare costs, pensions running bust, and a declining workforce. But, here is the reality, how an issue is socially defined sets the range of possible policy and market alternatives. In this case, aging is being framed as a health and pension problem to be solved, not as a market and policy innovation opportunity to be realized.
Perhaps it is the penchant of economists to rely on historic data that blinds them to a new opportunity hiding in plain sight. The older adults of today are profoundly different than those of previous generations. They are in better health, more active, and more ambitious about how they want to spend their “retirement” years. With these developments in mind, the shape of the “challenge” ahead of global policymakers and businesses ought to appear very different..
The G-20 decision-makers are correct that an aging population poses real challenges to businesses and policymakers alike — that is, if we continue to frame and address longer life as the same as it was decades, even centuries ago. But instead of portraying the growing number of older adults as a wave about to crash down on us, maybe governments and companies should start looking at it instead as an untapped opportunity — a new global longevity economy with endless possibilities and lifestyles yet to be envisioned.
One encouraging sign is that the framing the experts use changes depending on where you look. At the highest level, from the mouths of finance ministers and in international press releases, the vocabulary of risk and epidemic remains prominent. But go a little deeper, such as into the Global Coalition on Aging, the collaborative think tank that wrote the report driving G-20’s aging agenda, and you find talk about a global “opportunity”, “new possibilities,” a focus on “activity,”“productivity,” andeven “happiness.” Those working closest to older adults recognize that the zeitgeist is changing. And even if the forum’s language isn’t up to speed, G-20’s “historic” attention to aging is both a sign of how far we’ve come and how much more is left to be done.