Population ageing is, as the UN has described, one of the defining demographic features of modern times. If we are to believe some of the reports on the trend and the words used to describe it – population time bombs, crisis point – it will also be one of the defining challenges.

Of course, this bears some truth. As more people live longer, we can expect there to be additional costs for society. Increased medical expenses and demands for health provisions put extra pressure on already strained services. Longer life expectancies challenge current pension systems. And as the old-age dependency ratio – the ratio of elderly people to the working age population – goes off balance, welfare models will be pushed to the limit.

These challenges need to be addressed. But I believe the best way of doing this is to tackle the issue from another angle. We need a new and positive narrative that defies the negativity and transforms our ageing populations from a problem into an asset.

At the recent Summit on the Global Agenda, ageing populations were positively defined as “our only growing natural resource”. What an interesting and refreshing take on the issue. From this perspective, the    question then becomes: how do we exploit this resource sustainably while avoiding the mistakes we have made with other natural resources?

We all know that demographics drive demand. It therefore makes economic sense for businesses to focus on the over-60s and to embark on “baby boomer marketing”. We have already seen some examples of this – holiday resorts for older people, technology courses for the over-60s. Companies stand to gain a lot from exploiting this growing and powerful group of consumers.

But does this consumer approach fulfil the hidden potential of ageing populations? No. For me, the answer lies in participation. The over-60s have to be seen less as receivers – of welfare, of help – or targeted consumers, and more as participants, both in our economy and our society.

Let’s take the example of the labour market. It is only by taking older employees seriously – not by pampering or stigmatizing them – that we can make the most of everything they have to offer. This means that we have to invest in them. By doing so, we send out a powerful signal that we value them, their experience and their years of knowledge.

Increased autonomy is also important. Companies can’t offer every employee a vertical rise through the ranks, and some employees’ careers will level off. Without the prospects of further advancement, how do you keep these people satisfied throughout what might now be a longer working life? By providing them with an increased level of autonomy. We could even get rid of individual job descriptions and separate responsibilities, which can often lead to tasks becoming repetitive and mundane. Instead, let’s formulate objectives on a team level – and leave the members of the team themselves to decide how they achieve them.

Can governments do something to help promote this shift in attitude towards older workers? Yes, and to do so, they must use both the carrot and the stick. Tougher rules and laws will help, but only hand in hand with policies that reward those businesses that embrace this participatory attitude. To successfully change attitudes, governments must take a step-by-step approach. Big bangs make noise and end in bits and pieces. Taking small steps, involving people along the way and addressing their fears will strengthen the social platform and lead to long-term and sustainable success.

This shift towards a participatory approach will eventually redefine the concept of sustainable business. Today, sustainability largely involves addressing environmental challenges and the loss of natural resources. In the years to come, our understanding of sustainability will be enriched by embracing our most precious and the only growing natural resource: our older population.

Author: Alexander De Croo is the vice-prime minister and minister of pensions of Belgium

Image: An elderly woman walks her dog in Rio de Janeiro REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes