Caroline Grows Up

A lot can happen in 50 years. Since President Kennedy was assassinated, we got to the moon and planted our flag. We survived the Cold War, and a country that was once the U.S.'s greatest enemy is gone forever. And that battle with the Soviet Empire for world order now seems quaint compared to the present-day war on terror. Meanwhile, our children have given up on landlines, the postal service, and books made of paper. And, fatherless, Caroline has grown up.

There's also been remarkable change in the fabric of society, fueled by changing demographics. Roughly 30 years have been added to an individual's life-span since President Kennedy's fateful day in Dallas. And the number of children born has been plummeting. Developed nations are nearly all below replacement level (two babies born per woman per lifetime), and developing nations have seen incredible decreases also. India, one example of many, has seen its birth rate fall from nearly six to 2.5.

The shift in proportion of old-to-young is transforming every nation on the planet, but it is interesting that the very government to which Caroline presented her credentials almost to the day of the anniversary of her father's assassination has the oldest population on the planet. Japan has an incredible 30% of its population over 60, and this will climb to 40% in the next two decades. The question for Madame Ambassador, at this historic moment in time, is how she will engage the Japanese with respect to this unprecedented demographic transformation. And what can she learn from the Japanese that will help the U.S. as its population continues to age, inching ever-closer to the Japanese structure?

One of the most visible lessons of Japan is the parallel relationship between aging and economic stagnation. Since 1990, Japan's over-60 population has outnumbered those under-14, and by 2020 there will be nearly three "seniors" for every child. The fiscal and economic implications, of course, are massive.

And as Brazil, China, Thailand, Turkey, and other nations continue to urbanize and modernize, how are they going to continue to develop economically as their populations grow older? Japan is, so to speak, the canary in the coalmine, and Ms. Kennedy is now thrust at the center of one of the greatest socio-economic questions of the 21st century. Perhaps S&P put it best in their 2010 report Global Aging: An Irreversible Truth - "No other force is likely to shape the future of national public health, national finances, and national policies at the irreversible rate at which the world's population is aging."

President Kennedy, no doubt, would have had a vision and an indelible turn of phrase to guide public policy and re-consider how society's most fundamental institutions needed to be re-imagined and re-invented to meet the new demands of a nation's aging population. Perhaps instead of apologizing for broken websites, he would've been focused on finding solutions to health and healthcare. As the UK's National Health System unravels and the Chinese recognize the perils of institutionalized long-term care - and, of course, as the U.S.'s healthcare systems struggles to find the right solutions - perhaps Kennedy would've put aging as a national priority and call-to-action like he did the space program.

Perhaps Caroline can pull a page from her father's playbook and re-frame the challenge of population aging. It is not only a question of present-day fiscal sustainability and economic growth. It is equally - and perhaps more so - a question of creating a world for our children and grandchildren, and theirs'. They are all in an aging world, and unsustainable spending and a reeling economy will be their inheritance if 20th century solutions are continued to be offered for 21st century demographics.

So, Madame Ambassador, now that you have your credentials you are on the front-lines of this century's greatest challenge. What ought we learn from the Japanese, a nation where adult diapers will soon outsell baby diapers? How can we change our attitudes and policies to align with population aging? You are at the place to learn for the rest of us how we must transform our aging population from a place dependency to vitality, from liability to asset. If you can find solutions, you will have answered your father's call by asking what you can do for your country. And since aging populations are a global phenomenon, you will be serving the planet's humanity as well.