The phenomenon of lower birth rates and lower mortality rates toward the end of the 20th century has dramatically boosted the number of the world's older people, especially in developed countries. The trend is projected to accelerate in the next 50 years, posing potentially huge social and economic challenges. A forum of global experts on aging and demographics gathered at UN headquarters in New York last week to discuss population aging and ways of coping with it.
United Nations, 14 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Demographers at the United Nations say the number of people aged 60 years or older in the world is about 605 million this year. They project that number to grow to nearly 2 billion by 2050, which would make it as large as the projected population of the world's children aged 14 or younger.
This shift has huge social implications and presents a number of practical problems for in planning for pension schemes, health care, and economic growth. (Note: See RFE/RL's pension series Sept. 9, 1999)
A forum of experts which met for three days last week at the United Nations agreed that population aging is a global issue. They also urged policy makers to begin planning for this huge demographic shift now.
One forum panelist was Antonio Golini, director of the department of demography at the University of Rome and an adviser to the Italian government on population issues. He told the forum that the aging of populations is more difficult to plan for than other issues because of its gradual nature.
"Aging is a silent and underground process. It is not so explosive like unemployment, like migrations. So this means that in many cases, policy makers and public opinion are not so aware about the aging process.
Nearly one-quarter of Italy's population is over 60, one of the highest rates of elderly in the developed world. With birthrates continuing to fall, the Italian government is taking notice earlier than most countries of the changes brought on by an aging population.
Golini says the typical Italian family these days has one child, two or more parents due to the rising rate of divorce, four or more grandparents and a couple of great-grandparents.
"When we talk about aging, we consider only the problems of aging people and we tend to ignore the problems of young people. And the problems of young people are that in this kind of families we have a lot of vertical relations so this means that eight adults or old people have expectations just on one child and this child perhaps has not the best psychological, social environment."
Another panelist was Peter Peterson, chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. He researched the issue of aging populations for his book "Grey Dawn," which examines the economic consequences of a rapid rise in median age, especially in developed countries.
Among the projections he cited was that in the developed world in the next 25 years, those receiving benefits will grow 14 times faster than those paying benefits. He said in countries like Germany and Italy, it is possible that at one point soon, there would be one worker supporting one retiree in addition to his or her own expenses.
And, Peterson says, 11 of the world's 12 most populous countries will be in the developing world by the middle of the 21st century. Among other things, this may result in these countries providing the labor to support the developed world's economies.
"In 1950 there were seven developed nations included in the list of 12. In 2050 there's only one, namely the United States, and the other six are replaced ... by Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Congo, Mexico and the Philippines."
But another panelist, Betty Mullen, advised against regarding the elderly as a huge potential burden. Mullen is an official with the American Association of Retired Persons, a non-governmental group supported by more than 30 million Americans older than 50.
Mullen told the forum that discussion of issues regarding older populations is too often clouded by myths and stereotypes about the elderly. She said her organization's research has shown that elderly people are more independent, better workers, and healthier than they are given credit for. It is a mistake, she said, to look upon the elderly as "frail, dependent, and vulnerable."
"In fact the World Health Organization displays indicators that disability at least in the United States is declining in older persons. AARP believes that the coming of an aging society is a challenge but it needs to be a challenge based on the realities, present and future realities of aging and it could very well become a crisis if the policies developed to manage the challenge were based rather on myths and stereotypes and bore little resemblance to the current and future reality."
Panelist Peterson listed a number of solutions for countries coping with the surge in population over 60. They included adopting a pro-birth strategy, easing immigration laws to allow more workers to come from abroad or building up pension systems now. But prominent among his suggestions was that countries should allow people to work longer into old age.
A panelist representing the developing world was Nana Apt, a professor from Ghana. She said developing countries, with their extended family culture, are accustomed to three generations of relatives living together. But with the aging trend growing more prevalent in the developing world, households of five generations would become the norm. She said the time for anticipating such changes is now.
"Comprehensive planning for the aging of populations is nowhere to be found. Systematic, comparative research on the circumstances of social support systems of older persons is still to be undertaken. The extent and actual changes to family structure is still to be examined."
One reason for the slow response of governments to this issue was offered by panelist Golini, the Italian demographer. He said the level of aging at this time is a novelty in the history of mankind. For thousands of years, Golini said, children and youth predominated in the world and the old occupied a small niche in society. But as a result of real progress, many can now expect to reach old age. He said planning now is crucial because aging has ceased being the privilege of a few and is likely to be the condition of most of the world's population.