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UN: Experts Say Planning Needs to Keep Up With Aging World Population

UN officials have released new estimates projecting that the number of people 60 years or older will triple worldwide by the middle of this century, a trend that will have a particular impact on former communist countries. Experts on aging say this will cause new burdens on governments in caring for a more senior population, but they also say the growing number of vigorous elderly people can serve as an important economic and social resource. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 5 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- UN population experts say a demographic revolution is underway that will cause the number of older persons to grow to nearly 2 billion people by 2050.

That means in fifty years time about a fifth of the world's population will be 60 years of age or older. That compares with about 10 percent today. The UN population division says older persons could account for nearly a third of the population in Western Europe, where low fertility rates are already causing the average population age to grow.

These trends are also clear in the former communist countries now in transition. In the Czech Republic, Armenia, and Slovenia, for example, UN projections show that persons aged 50 or over will be in the majority by the year 2050.

Joseph Chamie, director of the UN's population division, says these changes will require governments to make policy shifts soon in areas such as pensions, retirement age, and immigration.

"With low fertility, the governments [are] facing an issue of taking care of these elderly people -- providing health care, providing pensions. You're likely to see a decrease in the availability of the monies for pensions. Also, health care will become a much bigger expenditure, ages of retirement may have to be increased."

Chamie said population experts have calculated, for example, that if Italy wished to keep its current ratio of four-to-five workers per each retiree in the year 2050, it would have to raise its retirement age from the current 60-year level to 77 years.

This is an important issue as well for the region in transition, where many countries today have average retirement ages of 55 years for women and 60 years for men.

The debate over retirement ages is one of the issues expected to be discussed at the UN-sponsored World Assembly on Aging scheduled to meet in Madrid next year (April 2002). Delegates from member states and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, met last week at UN headquarters to begin preparing the agenda. Participants in the planning for the assembly told reporters they hope -- through the conference -- to make the issue of global aging a policy priority for governments.

The president of the NGO Committee on Aging, Helen Hamlin, said her group wants the assembly's final document to emphasize the potential productivity of older persons. Hamlin said older people are too often stereotyped as being mainly a drain on resources.

"Aging is so often depicted in a dependency mode and in needing care and, yes, that's true, that happens to people, particularly as they reach very great ages. But most of us are now remaining quite vigorous well into our 70s and even 80s and the chronic [health] conditions that we all manage to pick up as we go along are quite manageable."

Hamlin said that, from her own experience as a social worker in the United States, she found many older persons want to contribute as workers or volunteers for as long as they can.

UN studies have not only found a growth in elderly populations worldwide. They also project a considerable increase in life expectancy by the year 2050. John Langmore, director of social policy and development in the UN's department of economic and social affairs, calls the steady increase of life expectancy, especially in the developed world, one of the great achievements of the 20th century.

Langmore says governments should capitalize more on that achievement. Like Hamlin, he says one of the goals of next year's assembly is to change attitudes toward aging. It should be considered less a problem, Langmore says, and more an opportunity for governments -- if they plan properly.

"The positive contribution of older people is under-discussed, is under-emphasized in community discussion and in policy discussion. And many policies need to change to adapt to the fact that populations are aging, and a very obvious one is it draws attention to the question of retirement ages."

Langmore stresses governments need to start recognizing that many people would like to continue working past the age of legal retirement. Some want to continue in their careers, while others may want to choose new fields or contribute to society as volunteers.

Hamlin of the NGO committee says the issue of older people in the work force can be a matter of financial security, especially as pension programs undergo strains. But she says it is also a question of physical and mental well-being for elderly persons to remain active in society.

She says senior citizens in the United States have been catalyzed in recent years by their growing numbers and vigor. Hamlin says one area of renewed interest in the United States is in adult education.

"The growth in middle-age and older-age learning has burgeoned enormously. All kinds of schools are offering all kinds of educational opportunities for older persons and not just for leisure time but in terms of re-educating for second and perhaps even third careers as they go on into life."

In developing countries, Hamlin says, NGOs are trying to stimulate opportunities for more older persons to become literate. The United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization -- or UNESCO -- estimates that, worldwide today, there are about 880 million adults who are illiterate.

Next year's assembly on aging will be the second of its kind. UN officials say there has been mixed progress since the first such assembly, held in Vienna in 1982. But with the release of dramatic new population figures, there will now be increased emphasis at next year's conference on the need to integrate, not marginalize, the world's aging population.