Green jobs—great. But gray jobs, maybe an even better bet.

If there is a single graphic that everyone concerned with the nation’s future should have tattooed on their eyeballs, my vote goes to this one:

US population over 65 1950 to 2050

Here is its central message: Forty years from now, one out of four Americans will be 65 or older.

Twenty million will be over 85.

One million will be over 100.

So far the Big Think on such numbers might be boiled down to a few reasonable conclusions: People will have to work longer and delay retirement. The government should underwrite serial job retraining and promote new kinds of annuity plans. These will boost tax revenue that would help pay the nation’s growing Social Security and Medicare tab. 

 “[It] would constitute a kind of neo-welfare state—a new covenant—that promotes individual responsibility in alliance with the voluntary sector, the market, and government,” observes Robert Butler, the dean of modern gerontology. He calls his package “productive aging.”

But there is a third rung: incentives to make aging an engine of economic growth. There’s gelt in that there gray! It’s the entire world that’s aging, after all, and that world’s in need of gerotools, gero-think, gero-innovation. We’ve got it. Let’s sell it—to China, Europe, India. 

I spent some time recently with innovators in this realm. Perhaps the most exciting were those designing new-style senior housing—ranging from high end architects and builders to small time real estate entrepreneurs. They are pursuing ways for the elderly to live more comfortably and safely in their own homes and communities.  

In Palo Alto, one former real estate saleswoman, frustrated with the elder-scary housing stock in that uptown realm, took to providing what turned out to be a popular and profitable service: gero-fitting, or “prostheticizing,” those ultra-modern (and hard-edged) homes with senior-friendly accoutrements: hand bars everywhere in case of a fall, showers and water sources that adjust heat and flow automatically, wheel chair turns in halls and room-by-room phones and computer screens that activate by voice. 

Nursing homes—places where one normally sees neither—are also slowly emerging out from under decades of under-investment and institution-think. Architects and developers from Sweden (one of the fastest -aging nations in the world), Japan (the fastest in Asia) and even Italy (one of the most unprepared gero-nations) have been retooling the unfulfilled promise of universal design to come up with new construction methods and new construction materials. Yet it’s American builders, with their vast experience and regional flexibility, who stand to be generational leaders in the most profitable arena: building new homes. Where are they?

Then there is transportation. Cars—and our addiction to them—are perennially painted as villains in elder-world. Yet until they are in their early 80s, the aged far outperform their younger counterparts, with fewer injury accidents and fewer tickets. Nevertheless, finding ways to make driving safer and more comfortable suggests another major opportunity: prostheticizing the automobile and making highways less cognitively confusing. Here in Los Angeles, the original car capitol, one company is using space program sensor technologies to make cars that warn drivers when they are tailgating, when they are weaving, when their off ramp is coming up. Roadways? Someone needs to use our state-of-the-art understanding of cognition to redesign everything from highway signs to lighting. A few farsighted firms are already trying to do so. We need more.

The aging of the modern stomach could also drive food science to develop new staples that are less glycemic (high blood sugar being one of the biggest sources of chronic inflammation in the elderly) but still tasty and satisfying. And, instead of being peremptorily dismissed, the “anti-aging” medical movement could be scientifically (and systematically) plumbed for real medical advances, tested with gold standard clinical trials, and then sold to the rest of the arthritic world.

Who, then, will lead? Who will become of the Bill Gates of ElderWare, the Al Gore of GeroWarming, the Warren Buffett of AlterAssets? Right now, we’re still waiting. “The boomers are going to have a rougher time in retirement than their parents,” says Robert Butler. “That can mean two things: they can complain about it, or they can retool it for their kids and take advantage of its promise.” 

Greg Critser’s new book is Eternity Soup: Inside The Quest To End Aging(Random/Harmony 2010).