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OPINION

A living laboratory must close the equity and opportunity gaps

As the nation recovers from the pandemic, we need to ensure that everyone can live a longer, healthier, more productive life.

Globe staff; Panithan/Adobe
Adobe/Globe Staff

As we embrace the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and look toward an end of the coronavirus pandemic crisis, the thought of getting back to normal is on all of our minds. But any desire to get back to normal must be accompanied by the recognition that normal excluded many in our pre-COVID world.

COVID-19 demonstrated the disparities embedded in our nation. The pandemic dealt major blows to many people and families, especially BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities, individuals with unstable incomes, and older adults in long-term care facilities. Consider that nearly 95 percent of COVID-19 deaths have been of people age 50 and older, and around 40 percent of all deaths have been among nursing home residents and staff, with Black and Hispanic nursing home residents dying at three times the rate of other residents. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that life expectancy in the United States declined by a full year in the first half of 2020 — the worst decline since World War II. More troubling, average life expectancy decreased by 2.7 years for non-Hispanic Black people and 1.8 years for Latinos.

There were disparities and inequities before the pandemic. These disparities did not happen by chance, and everyone is losing as a result. In fact, disparities in health and wealth stifle economic growth.

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An AARP report found that discrimination against workers over the age of 50 cost the economy $850 billion in 2018. The economic contribution of the older population could increase by $3.9 trillion annually in a no-age bias economy.

The Kellogg Foundation reports that closing the disparities gap would generate an additional $8 trillion in our GDP by 2050, an increase in additional federal tax revenues by $450 billion, and in state and local tax revenues by $100 billion annually. As the nation starts to recover from the effects of the pandemic, we need to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live a longer, healthier, and more productive life. This is not just a moral imperative: It’s also an economic necessity.

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Boston can pioneer the modern merger of moral imperative and economic growth, and drive equity and opportunity. Government, academic, business, and nonprofit leaders know that we cannot plan for or work within a longevity economy that provides goods, services, and experiences for only those who have means or access.

If the region is going to be the Silicon Valley of aging, it needs to embed the principles of equity as a core strategy for growth and innovation. Boston is a city of both wealth and poverty. It is burgeoning in its diversity. But the wealth disparity must be addressed, and people of color must be included and empowered in helping to co-create the solutions. A community doesn’t need to be told what their challenges are, nor should it have a solution thrust upon them without their input.

Since the economic downturn is directly related to the pandemic, efforts to rebuild the economy must likewise be multifaceted. Older Americans’ contributions are transforming markets and sparking new ideas across every sector of the economy and will play critical roles in the effort to rebuild the economy.

More specifically, as states face immediate economic challenges due to the pandemic, it is a critical time to recognize its growing aging population as part of a strategy for economic recovery and growth. According to the AARP Longevity Economy Outlook, the 50-plus population accounted for 37 percent of Massachusetts’ population, yet contributed 44 percent — or $244 billion — of the state’s total GDP in 2018. By 2050, that figure will more than double to $767 billion.

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People age 50 and over also play a significant role as part of Massachusetts’ workforce. By 2030, workers over age 50 are projected to number 1.3 million, representing 34 percent of the state’s total labor force — that means 2.4 million jobs in Massachusetts will drive employment growth across all age groups and industries.

While there is promise for the future of those 50 and older in this longevity economy, we must be mindful of the chasm of disparities in our culture. As a society, we are missing out because many people are being left behind. Improving longevity means not just improving the health care and long-term care systems, but also addressing systemic disparities in terms of community living options, longevity, workforce challenges, and the growing digital divide. To maximize the longevity dividend and create opportunity for all, we must act now to eliminate the widening disparities that stifle economic growth and prosperity and rob people, particularly communities of color, of the opportunity to live longer, healthier, and productive lives.

We must be intentional to close the opportunity gaps that impact all of us. We must listen, ask questions, build trust, and include the very communities’ we are seeking to help. Rather than thinking about overcoming these obstacles as a measure of success, we need to think about removing or preventing them altogether.

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Inequality, in any form, hurts us all, not just those who are primarily affected. The removal of barriers and prevention of new ones will determine how we can fully leverage the longevity dividend. Solutions, products, and services need to build wealth, strengthen health, and provide economic opportunity for everyone.

We must act with purpose and lead others to do the same. By leveraging the asset that is the aging population in this era of unprecedented change and uncertainty, we can create economic growth and societal benefits — now and for the future.

Jean Accius is senior vice president for global thought leadership at AARP.