Bracing For The Silver Tsunami

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As the general population, and workforce, get older and live longer, U.S. competitiveness will depend on how we support and prepare seniors, employers, and our society more broadly for this wave

It may be hard to believe, but the baby-boom generation has now been a game-changer, and major influencer in American life, for 70 years. In many aspects, they made their mark on our society, such as fueling a vast expansion of suburban life, driving new trends in fashion and music, and igniting a new age of consumerism and mass advertising. They were inventors, innovators, and disrupters – creating new-to-the-world global industries, transformative services, and business models that unleashed productivity growth, and raised prosperity and security for all Americans. 

Today, they are a demographic group 73 million people strong, with the oldest boomers just turning 75. Since 2010, about 10,000 of them have turned 65 per day, and they all will cross that age threshold by 2030. Once again, this — now aging — population will have a significant impact on everyday life, the economy and society.

Impact of Our Aging Population. People aged 65 and older account for more than one-third (35%) of U.S. health care spending. As the boomer population grows, so will these costs. Medicare serves virtually all the U.S. population in this age group, accounting for $700 billion a year, or about 3% of GDP. In the decade ahead, Medicare spending is expected to more than double due to increased enrollment and health care costs. The financial burden of taking care of our aging society will be yet another challenge.

Simultaneously, one-quarter of the U.S. labor force is expected to be 55 years of age or older by 2030, presenting new challenges for employers – with many boomers exiting the workforce and taking the knowledge, skills, and experience built up over decades with them. However, many are also expected to extend their work lives: Sixty-eight percent of those aged 55 to 64, and nearly 12% of those 75 and older, are expected to remain workforce active. Those who remain in the workforce may have maladies of aging that employers need to accommodate.

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Getting to a Better Age. More research is needed on healthy aging, and public health and social science must give greater attention to preventive care and the social aspects of an aging society. “We are at an inflection point in science and technology,” according to Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine. “If we can bring together the very best minds with an innovative, all-hands-on-deck approach, I am confident we can achieve the goal of healthy longevity and equity.” In fact, the National Academy of Medicine has created the Healthy Longevity Grand Challenge, which is a worldwide effort across more than 50 countries and territories, to bridge this gap and accelerate innovation — and breakthroughs — in this space.

Universities are also positioned to provide the science, engineering, and research needed. “The depth and breadth of expertise at American universities — among faculty, researchers, and students — positions us to play a vital role in leading research to improve the quality of healthspans,” says Emory University president Gregory L. Fenves. “The key is collaboration through interdisciplinary partnerships that bring together experts in medicine, public health, business, the social sciences, law, and the humanities.” The combination of STEM fields with those of social sciences can also address the disparities in the healthspan across geographic regions, and racial and income groups.

“The first step to improving health care outcomes for all Americans begins with making the medical industry substantially more diverse and representative,” says Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, president of Howard University. “[Historically Black college and universities] are creating pipelines into and partnering with companies to ensure decision-makers are representative of the populations they serve.”

Turning Silver into Gold. Increasing the healthspan could have significant economic and societal returns, as people participate in the workforce for longer periods of their lives — contributing to GDP and generating economic activity — and as the costs of treating age-related diseases and disabilities are reduced.

New businesses and industries could be spurred to meet the needs of this growing demographic. For example, Japan and Korea are world leaders in robotics, in no small measure due to their long-term efforts and investment to develop technologies to meet the needs of their aging populations. By 2030, there will be nearly 1 billion people worldwide that are 65 years of age or older, a demographic group that will swell to more than 1.5 billion by 2050.

With the “Silver Tsunami” and new era of breakthroughs in medicine and technology upon us, we have a golden opportunity to capture significant economic and societal returns, and create a higher quality of life for all of us as we age. Now is the time to make increasing the healthspan a national priority.