A weeklong UN conference in Madrid is warning that the world's population is aging rapidly, with people aged 60 and older poised to outnumber those under 15 in less than half a century. Demographers say the growing elderly population is no longer a concern only for rich countries but is also putting increasing pressure on poorer regions in the developing world. Experts agree, however, that population aging could also have positive effects, such as a growing number of active and healthy older people with extended working lives, as well as a reduced demographic pressure on farming land.
Prague, 10 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A United Nations conference in Madrid is warning of the effects of an unprecedented increase in the number of elderly people throughout the world over the next half-century.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told participants in the weeklong (8-12 April) World Assembly on Aging that by 2050, people aged 60 and older are expected to outnumber those under 15 for the first time in known history.
Delegates from some 160 countries are expected to adopt an action plan on ways to provide income, health care, and social services for the elderly and include them more actively in society.
The UN says the number of people aged 60 and over is posed to grow threefold before mid-century, from almost 630 million today -- or some 10 percent of the world's population -- to about 2 billion, or 20 percent of the total in 2050. The increase will put health-care, social-security, and pension systems under growing strain.
Aging populations have long been considered a problem mainly for rich countries. As a consequence of higher life expectancies and dropping birth rates, the number of people 60 and older in these countries has swelled over the past decades, currently accounting for almost 20 percent of their total population.
But demographers say similar trends are under way in many developing regions -- and at a much faster pace. Out of the estimated 1 million people who turn 60 every month, 80 percent live in developing countries.
Furthermore, such regions lack the level of economic and social development that enable rich countries to ensure proper care for their aging populations. However, experts say population aging in the developing world, far from being an alarm bell, should be viewed with careful optimism.
Joseph Chamie, director of the UN Population Division, says aging is a result of profound changes in the developing world's demographic trends, which were made possible by the wide availability of modern contraceptives, better health care, and education.
Chamie told RFE/RL that population aging in developing regions is positive, but that it also presents new challenges. "This trend in population aging should be viewed as an achievement. It's unprecedented and it's profound and it's going to be continuing for some time. It's the result of success in bringing down high rates of fertility and mortality, so we should see this as a success story in the area of population. Nevertheless, there are consequences and challenges that must be addressed in this changing, pervasive, important transformation of the population structure," Chamie said.
With birth rates falling below replacement levels not only in rich countries but also in many developing regions, the age structure of the world's population has indeed changed dramatically over the past 50 years. While the world's population is relatively young -- with a median age of 26 -- the overall life expectancy at birth has climbed 20 years, from 46 years in 1950 to 66 years currently.
The change is picking up momentum. Demographers say the number of persons 60 and older is currently growing by 2 percent annually -- considerably faster than the population as a whole -- and is expected to reach 2.8 percent in 2030.
Furthermore, the fastest-growing segment of the world's population is the oldest one -- more than 80 years old -- of which there are currently 70 million people. This figure is predicted to grow to an estimated 350 million people by 2050. By then, the median age will be 36.
Experts say the rapid aging of the world's population requires economic and social adjustments in most countries, but mainly in the poorer, developing regions, where people 60 and older will account for almost 20 percent by mid-century.
Demographer Zachary Zimmer from the Population Council -- a private, New York-based population-research center -- told RFE/RL the main challenge for developing countries is to establish effective social-security systems for the growing number of elderly people.
"Rather than negative aspects, there are challenges that countries face, particularly developing countries in that they mostly don't have the types of social-security programs in place that we have in the developed world in order to support older people when they retire and when they require more medical assistance. So these are the kinds of programs, the kinds of challenges, that are faced by these countries in order to develop policies that will effectively be able to take care of older people when they no longer work," Zimmer said.
Such social-security programs will be increasingly difficult to finance since the dependency ratio -- of working population to retired people -- is likely to narrow from the current 9:1 to only 4:1 in 2050.
However, experts say the current significant change in age structure is primarily due to a reduction in the number of children -- and not to an increased number of elderly.
UN Population Division head Chamie said this trend will provide developing countries with a so-called "window of opportunity" during which work forces will have to support a reduced number of children and elderly -- before the number of aging people begins to increase substantially.
"There would be a period, however, when the dependency ratio of the young and the elderly will be relatively small, and these [developing] countries will go through a period when they have what is called a demographic bonus, when there are relatively large numbers of people in their working ages and relatively fewer children and elderly. In this period, they have a window of opportunity for economic growth and to set up systems that would assist the elderly," Chamie said.
Demographers point out that in many developing countries where economies are based on subsistence farming, a reduced number of children means reduced pressure on farming land. At the same time in such societies, it is the families who traditionally provide care not only for the young, but for the elderly, as well.
Demographer Zimmer says that in such countries, governments should encourage the tradition and develop programs to help families take care of their elder members.
"The way to tackle the situation in terms of developing programs is to make sure that families maintain their involvement in the lives of both older and younger individuals. Now it is often the case that it is less expensive and less of a burden on society to support the older adults than it is to support children. Older people are often involved in productive activities. They're often involved in agricultural activities -- if not directly then indirectly with respect to the family and the household they live in. So the opportunities exist in terms of further developing programs that can support the family in supporting older adults," Zimmer said.
On the other hand, in developed countries, people not only live longer but are in much better physical and intellectual shape than half a century ago.
Chamie says that more developed states should follow the example set by some Asian countries and raise the statutory retirement age from the current 65, or even scrap it altogether, such as is the case in the U.S.
"The elderly are more active than they've been in the past. Someone today who's 60 is much more vibrant, much healthier, and much more active than someone that was 60 in, let's say, 1900. And therefore we should have a society that permits these people to be actively engaged, productive, and we've seen this in a number of East Asian societies, such as Japan, Korea, Singapore, and so on, where you have active elderly people up to ages of 70 or 80," Chamie said.
Chamie says that humanity has tried for ages to bring down death rates and increase longevity. Now that these goals have finally been achieved, he says, the new challenge arising is to build a future for all ages.