If Ringo and Paul Can Work...

Feb 10, 2014 | Updated Apr 12, 2014
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

The beginning of the year in America is a great moment of cultural connection. In between the Super Bowl and the Grammy Awards there's the State of the Union, often outdone by our fascination with Hollywood's big awards. This year, a common theme is the seminal challenge of our era: How we adapt to the aging of the American population. Everyone except the President seems to be getting it.

At the Grammys it was pure adoration for Ringo and Paul who, at 71, were at least as fabulous as 17-year-old Lorde. 60-year-old Cyndi Lauper's red carpet interview was far more interesting than Taylor Swift's dress. And the great Peyton Manning playing in the Super Bowl at 37 is, at least in the football world, rather like the rest of us working into our 60s or 70s, well past what most might consider "traditional working age." Meanwhile, Robert Redford, Bruce Dern and Judi Dench, all close to 80, are showing how we age and work in the 21st century is becoming increasingly disconnected from 20th century norms.

Not raising this point when he spoke of business and the "long-term unemployed" was a missed opportunity during the the President's State of the Union address. In discussing the long-term unemployed, it is essential to not limit the discussion just to the 40-50-year-olds who were let go and are still searching or the recent grads unable to find work. Yes, we must work to get these two groups back to work, but we must also expand the discussion to recognize our new reality and think through policies that would bring in to the workforce the 60, 70 and even 80-years-olds who could be working, want to be working and, by fiscal standards, we need to be working.

During his SOTU, the President sort of stumbled on the really big idea when he asked "...CEOs to give more long-term unemployed workers a fair shot," and informed the world that he would convene a meeting at the White House to make that commitment real. His conversations with corporate America at the White House last week on a "pledge" to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed was another general step in the right direction.

But, again, he missed!

During an era when there are more of us over 60 than in the traditional "working age," who could quarrel with the fact that American economic growth needs older Americans to remain as economically engaged as their kids and grandkids?

Our aging population is simply too large to ignore. The time is gone when we can send the aging off into the sunset with golden watches and social security checks. 77 million "baby boomers" are transitioning into "retirement," and the young-to-old ratio is tilting in favor of the seniors. Aging Americans are halthier and have more vitality than ever before. The longstanding idea that workers were expected to retire at a certain age is simply no longer relevant.

The President might look to those whose populations are even "older" than ours and appear to be making progress. We now know from a UK study just released that "simply boosting the percentage of those aged over 65 participating in the workforce, while moderating efforts to clamp down on immigration could boost the UK's gross domestic product by 12 per cent by 2037." And the country with the oldest population on the planet, Japan, is all about what they are now affectionately calling the "silver economy," which is a change in sociology, and creative use of technology to keep their "old" population working longer.

President Obama's commitment in his SOTU to address long-term unemployment did not pick up the transformational idea of our time that our global competitiveness, not to speak of our national economic well-being, is dependent upon a different approach to engaging our nation's greatest untapped economic resource -- older Americans . This issue is about much more than driving down unemployment numbers. It's how we redefine the way live, work, and "retire" in the 21st century and its relationship to economic growth and wealth creation.

Asking companies to be a part of the conversation is a great idea. However, these companies need to also "walk the walk" when it comes to their workforce practices and rethink their hiring processes. They must create an environment that offers a real opportunity to those candidates who some might think to give directions to the nearest bingo hall rather than an invite for an interview. Industry should also consider not just how to hire more older workers but how to also encourage ongoing economic contribution in the form of entrepreneurship and socially-driven enterprise

But the burden is not only on the large corporations the President has singled out for his pledge. How about using tax policy to offer incentives for "silver entrepreneurs." Or perhaps true pension and social security reforms that give incentives to stay active and keep working as we age.

The President could also direct the Bureau of Labor Statistics to rethink the way unemployment rates are calculated and to also count the under-employed as a new way to measure in the 21st century. Counting this way would do great damage to the political posture that unemployment is reducing but it would be far more honest and would set the right positioning for 21st century working life. This would open the eyes of many and profoundly change the national sociology of how we live, work and "retire."