Age Against the Machine

BEIJING – The elderly are a crucial link in the chain that binds generations and sustains civilized society. Today, however, older people are largely considered to be out of touch with the modern, technology-driven world, and incapable of paying their own way. But much evidence shows otherwise: if aging were framed as an economic opportunity, the growing number of older people worldwide could become modernity’s gift, rather than society’s burden.

The world’s fastest-aging societies – particularly countries in Europe (including Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) and Asia (South Korea and Japan) – are leaders in international competitiveness and innovation. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, more than half of the world’s 25 most competitive economies are among the 20 countries with the oldest populations. And INSEAD’s Global Innovation Index shows that two-thirds of the world’s 25 most innovative countries are among the most aged societies.

To be sure, these rankings do not prove that aging drives countries’ competitive advantage. Rather, they suggest that an unfavorable demographic profile can be offset by other advanced-country characteristics, such as a well-developed physical infrastructure, a highly educated workforce, sophisticated technological capabilities, mature financial markets, and stable governing institutions.

As these countries’ median age continues to rise, microeconomic evidence indicates that they will remain competitive – particularly if they capitalize on people’s ability to remain productive for longer. Although older workers’ health, disability, and life-insurance costs are higher, innovations in health-care treatment and access mean that age-related health problems do not impede one’s capacity to contribute economically or socially as much, and not until much later in life.