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In the 21st century, the world faces a dual demographic problem. First, the world population will continue to grow, increasing from about 6 billion in 2005 to more than 9 billion in 2050. Second, by around that time, the waves of an aging society now enveloping the developed countries as a result of declining birthrates and longer life spans will reach the shores of developing countries. The process is expected to accelerate on a global scale.

The latest U.N. world population estimate makes it clear that humankind is likely to face a situation that it has never experienced before. A major issue for the current century will be how to pool our wisdom in response.

The ratio of elderly people aged 65 or over, which stands at 7.4 percent at present, is forecast to rise to 16.1 percent by 2050. When the elderly ratio exceeds 7 percent, society is said to be aging. When the ratio surpasses 14 percent, it is called an “aged society.” In other words, the world has already entered the era of an aging society, and will enter the era of an aged society in 2040, when the elderly ratio is projected to reach 14.3 percent.

In 2050 it is estimated that there will be 320 million elderly people in the developed countries and 3.6 times that number, 1.14 billion, in the developing countries. Life spans are getting longer, too. The average maximum age (for men and women) is forecast to rise from 74.6 years in 2000-2005 to 81.7 years in 2045-2050 in the developed countries and from 62.8 years to 73.6 years, respectively, in the developing countries.

In addition, the number of people aged 80 or over — that is, the “oldest old” who tend to have a greater need for care — is forecast to increase 4.5 times on a worldwide scale from 87 million today to 394 million in 2050.

Furthermore, as a consequence of the declining birthrate, the ratio of children under 14 in the total population is expected to drop from 28.2 percent today to 20.2 percent. The population pyramid, therefore, is going to change from the shape of Mount Fuji to that of a jar.

The speed of aging also deserves attention. The doubling of the elderly ratio used to occur at a moderate pace. In the developed countries, it took 105 years in France, 85 years in Sweden, and only 24 years in Japan. In all of these countries, the phenomenon happened at a time of economic development. In the developing countries, the elderly ratio is a low 5.5 percent at present, but is forecast to rise to 7.5 percent in 2020 and 14.6 percent in 2050. In other words, their elderly ratio is forecast to double in around 30 years.

The problem of declining birthrates and an aging population is particularly acute in Japan. According to statistics released recently by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the fertility rate (the number of children on average that a woman gives birth to in her lifetime) reached 1.29 in 2004 — an all-time low if the numbers are taken to the third decimal point.

An optimistic analysis indicates that the margin of difference is getting smaller and that the rate has hit or is about to hit bottom, but the fact that elderly persons aged 65 years and over now account for 19.5 percent of the total population is more evidence of the speed with which the phenomena of declining birthrates and aging are progressing.

The majority of the more than 1 billion people in the world that must survive on less than one dollar a day live in developing nations, where conditions of health and hygiene are hostile to human welfare. As well as tackling the important issues of economic development and the elimination of poverty, these nations will have to deal with the problem of aging.

The second United Nations World Assembly on Aging, which was held in Madrid in 2002, adopted an action plan for countries to follow, emphasizing such issues as promoting the participation of the elderly in society and development, building an environment in which the elderly can work, and providing opportunities for education and training for the elderly. Japan’s domestic performance in achieving these targets is not particularly good. Solutions to the problem of aging demand worldwide efforts and wisdom.

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