Old And Connected In China

While Mr. Zuckerberg  was meeting with officials in Beijing a few weeks ago, in Shanghai there was another, far less public meeting on the population aging challenge facing China. Both were about China's willingness to open its minds and policies, to change that can support economic growth in the context of three 21st century mega-trends of population aging, connectedness and innovative technology recently identified by the McKinsey Think Tank. Nor is it unconnected that also this past week we saw the report that the China-based e-commerce giant, Alibaba, is about to surpass Wal-Mart in global sales. There is no doubt that the demographic over 60 will increasingly benefit from e-commerce as they can purchase and benefit from their homes. Last fall's OECD Workshop at Oxford on "Ageing and The Digital Economy" was not just about health benefits but how the one billion of us over 60 can engage in commerce and contribute to economic growth in a world of aging, innovative technology and connectedness.  

Whatever deal Mr. Zuckerberg is making with Chinese officials, they do know that implementing their 13th 5-year-plan will require some very serious social changes that not only treat their aging population differently, but open their economic system to the full measure of trade and investment flows that can drive economic growth. Note the language used by  Chinese President Xi Jinping to explain the profound impact of aging on their economic growth prospects: "Over 15 percent of the population is 60 years old or above. The working-age population has started to decrease and the trend is continuing... The new policy [allowing two babies without fines] should reduce the pressure of anaging population, increase the labor supply and promote balanced population development."

China today has well over a quarter billion people over 60, and that number will grow to about the size of today's entire European population. It's a market if ever there was one. It's also a challenge if the public policy and external conditions are not ripe.

What will also reduce the pressures are several public policy enablers that were the subject of the "Shanghai Roundtable on Active Ageing" held coincidentally when Mr. Zuckerberg was having his meetings in Beijing:

1. Treat the 60+ demographic in China as we are increasingly doing across OECD countries, namely consumers of product from healthcare to financial services, technology to retail. Growing proportions of this commerce are already taking place through the Internet - witness the Alibaba phenomenon -- and this will grow over the next decades as the aging population in China reaches numbers that are equivalent to America today. Moreover, if Mick Jagger in his 70s can keep singing, how is it not obvious that "old" in the 21st century is to be redefined?

2. China, like most other nations, ought to pay very close attention to the new World Health Organization public health strategy based on achieving functional ability for a healthier and more active aging. The strategy is to be adopted in a few weeks at the World Health Assembly in Geneva and will provide the guidance China and all other countries on the planet will need for a set of policies that add a 21st century approach for quality of life to the multiple years our longevity now realizes.

3. Recognize the special Elder Care Giving needs of the 80+ demographic, also growing in China, as elsewhere and also the most rapidly growing segment of the overall population. Technology will be essential to this elder caregiving, especially if China is to meet its goals of 90 percent of this demographic "aging in place" at home. From telehealth and telemedicine, censors recognizing falls and enablers of better and more effective medicine compliance, China will have to open its borders to the best of what can be produced across the globe. Free trade is sine qua non with China's growth with an aging population.

4. Like everyone else, keep people working longer -- the "ditch retirement movement" is as relevant for China as anywhere.

China, like the rest of us, is experiencing the medical and health benefits of the 20th century that lead to 21st century longevity. Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shenyang and the rest of China's urban centers are joining New York, Tokyo, Berlin and Sydney where the once unimaginable achievement of long lives is becoming the norm. Young girls and boys born in Shanghai in the '90s are likely to see three centuries as are our sons and daughters in the West. We increasingly get this and more and more beginning to plan. What we tend not to fully appreciate is the low birth rates that have now also become a condition of 21st century life across the globe -- developed and developing, rich and poor, everywhere. Of course, the infamous one-baby policy in China has only exacerbated for them the huge challenges of population aging. All the more reason that China will have to change its ways for greater openness -- in trade, the internet, learning from others on productive urban development.

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