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Like globalization, population aging is a universal force with the power to shape the future. By 2050 the number of people aged 60 and over in the world will increase from 600 million today to almost 2 billion. In Japan, the proportion of the population aged 65 or over will climb from 17.2 percent in 2000 to 25.8 percent by 2015. In countries like Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Mexico and Singapore, the 65 and older population is set to increase by 50 percent at the same time. In many developing countries, the proportion of children is expected to fall from 33 percent to 22 percent by 2050, and the elderly population to rise from 8 percent to 19 percent.

This remarkable transition will result in the old and the young representing an equal share of the world’s population by midcentury. The policy implications for social services, and for building and strengthening the institutional capacity for managing the challenge at national and international levels, are large. With the adoption of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Aging in April 2002, the issue is now on the international agenda.

One of the great success stories of the 20th century, albeit with disquieting pockets of exception, was the incorporation of billions of people into an expanding network of public-health systems, greatly reducing the incidence of preventable diseases and avoidable deaths.

This has had three measurable consequences: (1) There have been fewer deaths associated with the process of pregnancy and childbirth, with declining incidence of maternal and infant mortality; (2) children have had a healthier start to life and felt the benefits from the cradle to the grave; and (3) advances in medical science, in combination with improved access to health and medical services, has delayed death for hundreds of millions all over the world.

Along with the major demographic changes, there have been significant shifts in social structures and political ideologies. In many parts of the world, traditional structures of the extended family are being replaced by the nuclear family. But traditionally the extended family has looked after the newborn, the young, the working adult and the elderly: The extended family was the most common and the most efficient social welfare institution for everyone throughout their life cycle.

The nuclear family cuts off the daily support structure for the elderly. Who or what is to replace this life and spirit-sustaining function? In many parts of the world — Japan is an excellent example — young people are avoiding or delaying marriage to a later stage in their professional life and having fewer children. Japan’s birthrate has fallen from a postwar peak of 4.3 in 1949 to 1.3 in 2001, which would begin to shrink the total population from 2006 onward from a peak of 127.5 million.

In 2000, only one in every 10 person in the world was aged 60 or older. By 2050 this is expected to increase to one in five, and by 2150 to one in three. One consequence is that the workforce is no longer being replaced on a naturally self-sustaining basis.

As the proportion of retirees rises, that of the productively working falls. Thus each worker is having to support more and more elderly. In the meantime, changes in the political consensus of the times mean that governments, as part of the state’s retreat from the social sector, are seeking to limit their responsibility and exposure for an increasing range of social welfare services. On whom then will the burden of supporting the rising numbers of elderly fall?

Higher life expectancy, delayed marriages, fewer children, the “nuclearization” of the family structure, and the cutback of social services by many governments: All of this adds up to a crisis in the making that will have profound implications for societies the world over. The social policy implications are as critical as they are urgent. Future generations will not forgive us if we fail to prepare for this most foreseeable of contingencies.

Yet the demographic transition now under way is both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge to educate and create jobs for youth is already upon us; less apparent is the need to provide for the aging. The opportunity is the historical evidence that demographic transitions in the industrial societies and the newly industrializing Asian economies have been accompanied by rapid economic growth and development. A similar momentum should be generated elsewhere in the developing world.

The challenges for the United Nation’s work program are multifaceted:

* From the goal of poverty eradication: The achievement of secure aging is crucial; where poverty is endemic, people who survive a lifetime of poverty often face an old age of deepening poverty.

* From a gender perspective: Older women outnumber older men, increasingly so as age increases.

* In emergency situations: Older people are especially vulnerable and should be identified as such; also it should be recognized that older people can make a positive contribution in coping with emergencies in promoting rehabilitation and reconstruction.

* Concerning solidarity among generations: There is a need to strengthen intergenerational partnerships, keeping in mind the particular needs of both older and younger generations.

* With respect to research and data collection: Age and gender-sensitive data collection and analyses are essential for formulating effective policies

All of these aspects of the work program will need to be simultaneously advanced, if the U.N. is to make an effective contribution to the rapidly growing challenge, and opportunity, facing the world.

The U.N. must deepen understanding of this challenge while continuing to focus on the immediate challenges of education, health and employment for today’s youth. We must carry out cross-national and reliable research into the scale, time frame, geographical distribution and urgency of the problem; deduce the necessary policy implications; explore the possibility of extrapolating from the experience and lessons of the industrialized to the developing countries; articulate the appropriate national and international policy frameworks; and recommend the corresponding institutional solutions for mitigating the consequences of the demographic shift from the youth, through the middle-aged worker to the retired elderly.

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