Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, and Shinzo Abe each have become global lightning rods on the politics of immigration. Wittingly or not, the Republican front-runner, the German Chancellor, and the Japanese Prime Minister are each at the fiery nexus of one of the most sensitive and volatile global issues. Yet none of them has cast immigration within the framework of population aging. This is a mistake.
From both hostile and friendly leaders, immigration is often characterized as a source of class conflict, political tension, and social disruption. Yet, it is also true that immigrants can help solve 21st century elder caregiving needs; and 21st century elder caregiving needs can help solve the immigration crisis.
Population aging is sweeping the globe -- with the 80+ demographic growing faster than any other in countries all over the world, particularly in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Meanwhile, birth-rates are falling, and the overall proportion of old-to-young is reaching a balance -- or an imbalance -- that just decades ago would have been inconceivable. And today is increasingly fiscally unsustainable.
As there is an exploding demand for elder caregivers, there is the parallel truth of huge under supply. And it is today in the "rich" countries where immigrant populations can be a source of elder care for the outsized older populations in need of this caregiving. Set against the equally stunning reductions in birth rates that today and in the decades ahead will lead to fewer "working aged" people to fill the roles. It is, so to speak, a perfect storm of demographics and economics.
Sure, we do see evidence that elder caregiving demand might be solved by robots and other assistive technologies. Undeniably, there is a surge of exciting technologies and innovation that can help the "oldest old" remain independent and at-home for longer than ever before. Telemedicine and the "smart home," for example, are leaping forward.
Yet even with this potential, it's hard to imagine that we would leave our parents' care to be sourced solely through machines. The personal touch to caregiving remains too important.
This collision of immigration and robots illustrates a fundamental point: the aging of our population should be seen as a strategic screen through which economic growth can be achieved while simultaneously opening to new jobs.
Talk to anyone in the elder caregiving world, and they agree that the eldercare gap is large and expanding. Those in the business sure know, such as Home Instead Senior Care. Those practicing gerontology and geriatrics would agree, as their community of specialists only numbers 7,000 in America and must expand to 17,000 to meet the needs of this fast growing demographic. And most of all the families themselves know, as they struggle to manage the "elder caregiving burden" on their own, as recently profiled by the National Alliance for Caregiving. Where we see the stress and anxiety among the older of our working adult children having to balance parents' caregiving needs with jobs.
Because, if you talk, too, to businesses who employ these family caregivers -- growing by the millions -- we're learning more and more that elder parents' caregiving duties are becoming a serious employer productivity issue.
Against all these challenges -- and the only partial role that robots will fill -- why not use the exploding demand for elder caregiving as a way to think and act differently toward those who want to come to America? Or to Europe and Japan? Or, better, aggressively open immigration channels for these and other jobs that are demanding to be filled.
This past summer, President Obama's White House Conference on Aging began to address this. In Europe, there are considerable efforts underway that connect these dots as a way to drive their 2020 Economic Growth Plan. And as the Japanese prepare for the use of robotics in elder care, they can teach the rest of us how to marry innovative technology with the most personal of human need. Prime minister Abe, Angela Merkel and President Obama could surely help by convening a conference on elder caregiving under the Japanese G-7 leadership, where they target the multitudes of immigrants from neighboring countries who want to contribute value to what they hope will be their new homes.
Moreover, this would follow perfectly from the targeting of Alzheimer's by Prime Minister Cameron of the UK when he led the G-7 last year. With 50% of all eldercare dedicated to Alzheimer's, the connection and need is clear. So, why not turn today's anti-immigration rhetoric on its head, and frame immigration as the solution for one of global society's greatest needs.
If we get this right, we can solve two problems at once that are at the core of today's otherwise political tensions -- economic growth and job creation and immigration.