'Gray' Americans: Not a crisis, but economic growth driver

An elderly man looks at a utility bill. Many people view America's aging population as a crisis, but some say the elderly can be an economic growth driver.

America's aging population is growing -- and that growth has led to questions about how the U.S. will be able to support its elders. Some experts say that the aging population -- often viewed by many as a crisis and challenge -- can actually be an economic growth driver.

Recently, the Council on Foreign Relations held a discussion on the “U.S. Aging Population as an Economic Growth Driver for Global Competitiveness.” Experts -- including the council’s senior fellow Michael W. Hodin, MIT AgeLab Director Joseph F. Coughlin, and AEGON USA’s Kelly Michel -- took part in the discussion as guest speakers and explained that there are four key reasons why America’s aging population could help drive economic growth.

1. Consumer potential
Nowadays, people don’t just want to live longer, they want to live longer better. America’s aging population is going to need better, easy-to-use products to experience a more fulfilling life. There is a huge consumer potential in manufacturing specially-produced products for elders.

2. Experiences that the youth don’t have
Workers who are 50-plus tend to have more experience in fields that are both high quality and high craft. But in key areas -- like government service, engineering, air-traffic control -- the U.S. has a tremendous shortage of people. MIT AgeLab Director Joseph F. Coughlin said, “If anyone flew here, you should know that the average air-traffic controllers are more close to 60 than they are to 40. And we don’t have anyone taking these jobs. So we really have a need to keep those folks as long as possible.”

3. The old are more optimistic
America’s older population has a greater sense of optimism, “that tomorrow will be better than yesterday, or we will find a way,” said Coughlin. That optimism -- when combined with emerging new technologies, commodities and services -- will only help Americans figure out how to live longer better. That can be economic growth and social development driver.

4. Self-reliance is a competitive advantage
AEGON USA’s Kelly Michel said that compared to Europeans, who are really focused around ideas of social networking, Americans are very self-reliant in many ways. Notions about saving for retirement and needing to find sustainable housing are examples of Americans preparing for aging. “That may ultimately end up of being a significant advantage that we are culturally already gearing ourselves toward this notion of self-reliance… I think this is substantial competitive advantage,” said Michel.

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