Women, Aging and Economic Growth

Last week, when President Obama went down to sunny Cabo for the G20, he missed an opportunity to show the world how the lessons from the women's movement can solve the world's growing economic woes. Obama could have argued that, just as the women's movement helped grow the American economy in unprecedented ways in the 20th century, today's global aging population drive economic growth in the 21st century.

The lessons of America's women's movement are clear: while liberation was certainly "the right thing to do," it has also proven to be an economic miracle. Women jumpstarted an extraordinary economic growth story, and President Obama should have brought this case to the G20. It would have been an illuminating parallel to the case that today's 450 million global "baby boomers" are the world's greatest untapped economic resource. And in a world where there will soon be 2 billion people over 60 -- more than under 14 -- re-imagining this demographic role in economic life offers the structural shift needed for fiscal sustainability in our century.

Had Obama made these claims, he would have led the G20 in aligning economic and fiscal policy with this 21st century demographics, and he would have led the G20 in seeking to answer an imperative question: How can the swelling over-60 demographic turn from dependent to economically active and productive? As many G20 nations will soon have over one-third of their population over 60, it is vital to find new health, education and "retirement" policies to transform this aging segment into a driver of growth.

Moreover, he would have had a receptive audience in Cabo. A number of his G20 counterparts are already working on the "aging issue." The Japanese, for example, who are officially the world's oldest population, released a cabinet policy paper last week that argues that Japan "needs to realize a society where ageing people can participate in the labor market or in social activities... to boost its economic growth." And the Europeans dedicated 2012 as the Year of Active Aging.

The BRIC nations, too, would have perked up, as they and others in the developing world are aging at an even more rapid pace than Japan, Europe or the United States. And their leadership is taking note. For example, the Mexican Minister of Health has endorsed the UN's project on non-communicable diseases; China has placed aging at the heart of its latest five-year plan and one is beginning to hear whispers of the Brazilians holding the first "Age-Friendly" Olympics when they host in 2016.

The President's argument would indeed draw on powerful data from America's experience with an untapped segment of the population. Just a few short decades after women were economically enfranchised in the U.S., they now add nearly $3 trillion to the economy. And women-owned businesses employ nearly 16% of the workforce. If businesses owned by U.S. women accounted for their own economy, it would have the fifth-largest GDP in the world. The parallel to today's global disenfranchisement of older adults is clear. The traditional paths of retirement and dependence are robbing the global economy of its full growth capacity.

If President Obama had pushed for aging populations to be on the G20 agenda, he could have drawn from compelling precedent where his own Administration broke ground. Last year, under American leadership, the Asia Pacific Economic Council embedded aging populations in its 2011 Ministerial pronouncement. Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats later said, "We need a focused, society-wide effort to transform our vision of aging from a time of dependency to a time of continued growth, contribution and social and economic participation."

Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, furthered the theme at the Pan American Health Organization's celebration of Population Aging this past April when she said, "by keeping our seniors healthy and engaged, we [begin] to write a new story... in which every nation will have more productive workers... and every nation thrives."

Today, the idea of "every nation thriving" may seem like a pipe dream, especially with Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and others at financial risk. But, like the women's movement, great leadership can make the ostensibly impossible feel attainable. That was the opportunity at this years' G20.

And it was missed. So here's an idea. In October, the IMF and World Bank Group will meet in Tokyo for their annual meeting. In discussing development, fiscal sustainability and economic growth, leaders there could transform the conversation by arguing for innovative public policy that unleashes the economic potential of the globe's aging populations. It is 100% certain that those in Tokyo will be applauding.