Does an Older Population Spell the End for Innovation?

What's to come?
Nov. 8 2013 8:33 AM

Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?

How China, Japan, and the U.S. can promote innovation in an age of longer lifespans.

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But the stakes are high for the world as well as Japan. The Japanese economy is No. 3, after the United States and China, and a major engine for economic growth and innovation. Whether Americans know it or not, every smartphone sold in the world contains Japanese technology that resulted from a powerful innovation engine. What happens in Japan will reverberate around the world.

For China, the race against “graying time” is just as urgent. As one expert wrote recently, the average Chinese lived until 74.8 years of age in 2010, rising from 68.6 in 1990. By 2050, 1 in 3 people in China is expected to be 60 or over. James Liang, a professor at the Stanford School of Business and Peking University, believes China is in danger of becoming a graying society with a shrinking population of young people who can contribute entrepreneurial sparks to the economy. A Businessweek article from earlier this year noted that Liang recently wrote in Caixin magazine, “If China maintains its current total average fertility rate, its demographic structure diagram by 2040 will be nearly the replica of that of Japan today.”

Indeed, China’s entrepreneurial zeal may already be waning, as reported by the Wall Street Journal in an article titled “Chinese College Graduates Play It Safe and Lose Out.WSJ notes, “Two-thirds of Chinese graduates say they want to work either in the government or big state-owned firms, which are seen as recession-proof, rather than at the private companies that have powered China's remarkable economic climb, surveys indicate.”

China early morning exercises
Elderly women head for early morning exercises in Ditan Park in Beijing in 2011.

Photo by Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

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For the United States, I would like to add a very old proverb from 380 B.C., when Plato wrote in The Republic that “Necessity is the mother of invention.” The October issue of Health Affairs gives us a sense of the magnitude of the necessity and invention looming in our future of longevity. In a paper, seven co-authors argue, “Recent scientific advances suggest that slowing the aging process (senescence) is now a realistic goal.” Instead of our current highly focused “disease model,” the authors advocate for a “delayed aging” approach that would reduce comorbidities over the entire lifetime. They estimate that the economic value of delayed aging is about $7.1 trillion over 50 years.

But delayed aging will also far outstrip those economic benefits with greatly increased entitlement outlays, especially for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The authors note with a delightful understatement, “The major challenges of delayed aging appear to be of a fiscal nature, but they are manageable.” Clearly, those words were penned before the government shutdown and the postcrisis threats to do it all again in three months.

In the end, every individual and society has a choice about how to respond to this future of longevity. We can’t see the future now, but the very natural human desire to extend life could very well be the catalyst for innovations now unimaginable.

It’s easy for Americans to lose their confidence these days in the face of a continuous scroll of bad news about our economy, society, and government. But as I write these words from my hotel room in Singapore, I see that the world still looks to the United States to lead. Nowhere is that need for leadership more true than in our ability to serve as the world’s innovation engine. We continue to set the gold standard for entrepreneurship—or perhaps I should say the silver standard—in the field of private-sector response to aging.

I turned 60 this year. That makes me very old in dog years, but I still like to learn new tricks. I hope you do, too. Our future depends on it.

Michael Birt is director of the Center for Sustainable Health at ASU’s Biodesign Institute. He began working on aging issues in Japan in 1990.