New Wrinkles on Global Aging

Growing Old—Staying Young

Refugees India
Diwan Chand, 84, sits in front of a school building now used as a camp for migrants in Bishnah, India. Chand was forced to flee his home in Kashmir because of intense shelling (Photo: AFP).

By 2050, the number of the aged will exceed the population of children for the first time in human history. The economic, social, and political repercussions of a graying society are enormous. New policies and attitudes will be needed to meet the burdens—and the opportunities—of this demographic seismic shift.

A major achievement of the 20th century was the breakthrough—made through advances in medical technology and better nutrition and healthcare—in extending the human life span. The 21st century must live with the consequences of that far-reaching achievement: One million people cross the 60-year mark every month, and of them, 80 percent live in the developing world. According to United Nations figures, the fastest-growing segment of the older population is also the oldest segment—comprised of persons who are 80 years or more. This group numbers 70 million, and it is projected to grow to five times its present size over the next 50 years.

Today the world faces the many-sided challenge that a rapidly aging population presents. As with every other global issue, this too will be experienced differently by the developing world and the developed world. The phenomenon of aging, of growing numbers of persons surpassing the age of 65, has transformed the demographic profile of world populations. While the increase in life expectancy has added tremendously to human happiness and human capabilities across all social groups and cultures, the consequences of this demographic change in a context of sharpening global inequality are posing a major challenge to individuals, families, communities, and governments. This is particularly so in developing countries, where poverty, gender discrimination, urbanization, and—in sub-Saharan Africa—the HIV-AIDS pandemic have increased the hardships faced by the aged.

It is in this context that the U.N.’s Second World Assembly on Aging was held in Madrid, from April 8-12, 2002. The First World Assembly on Aging was held in Vienna 20 years ago. At that conference, an International Plan of Action on Aging was prepared. Since then the world has changed. New issues have emerged, such as the impact of globalization, HIV-AIDS, and recurrent armed conflict and displacement.

The U.N. General Assembly resolved to hold the Second World Assembly in 2002. As in the case of most U.N. conferences, a preparatory committee prepared a draft International Plan of Action on Aging. However, some issues remained unresolved in the draft document. Among them were the role of debt relief and aid to developing countries in addressing this problem; a human-rights-based global approach to aging; the economic options, including pension rights, before an aging labor force; the special healthcare needs of the aged; and a monitoring mechanism for the implementation of the International Plan of Action, including resource mobilization through aid. After four days of intense debate, delegates from 160 nations resolved to promote the rights of the aged, with special focus on poor countries.

A 44-page International Plan of Action and a Political Declaration on aging were adopted. Both documents committed governments and policy-makers in international forums to implementing a set of 117 recommendations revolving around [aging].

According to Juan José Lucas, vice president ex-officio of the Assembly and minister of the presidency of Spain, the International Plan of Action is a “framework of development and combating poverty, which emphasizes the importance of active aging, of intergenerational solidarity, and the necessity of helping developing countries.” Some of the issues highlighted in the Plan of Action are to achieve “secure aging” by poverty eradication and to build on the U.N. Principles for Older Persons; help older persons participate effectively in their social, economic, and political milieus; guarantee the economic and political rights of aged people; ensure the elimination of gender-based discrimination among aged persons; provide for the special healthcare needs and support for aged people; harness scientific research and expertise toward the individual, social, and health implications of aging, particularly within developing countries.

The Plan of Action urges governments to implement policies that
promote access to training for older workers and sets a target date of 2015 for a 50-percent improvement in adult literacy. Since many of the problems affecting the aged in poor countries are linked to problems of national debt, the Plan of Action recommends that developed countries make concrete efforts to achieve the target of providing 0.7 percent of their gross national product (GNP) as development aid to developing countries, while those countries try to reach the target of providing 0.15 percent of their GNP as aid to the least developed countries. The Political Declaration provides the international perspective on the issues of aging and reiterates the necessity of cooperation in addressing them.

The demographic global context of the issue of aging was provided by a report prepared by the U.N. as a background for the conference. The report suggests that we are moving into a future where the aged will soon outnumber the young. “The aging of the population today is without parallel in the history of humanity. Increases in the proportions of older persons (60 or older) are being accompanied by declines in the proportions of the young (under age 15).” By 2050, the report says, the number of aged persons in the world will grow to almost 2 billion, exceeding the population of children (up to 14 years) for the first time in human history. This historic reversal in relative proportions of the young and the old took place by 1998 in the more developed countries. By 2050, the proportion of aged persons to the rest of the population is projected to reach 21 percent.

The highest percentage (54 percent) of the aged population lives in Asia. The pace of growth of the aging population in Asia is much faster, and this is evident at the lower levels of socioeconomic development. In fact, the fastest growing age group is the oldest-old, which comprises those aged 80 years and above.

The percentage is currently increasing at the rate of 3.8 percent a year and comprises 12 percent of the total number of aged persons. By the middle of the century, one-fifth of the older persons will be 80 years or older.

Another significant aspect of the demography of aging is that the majority of the aged are women. Because life expectancy is greater for women than for men, today there are 81 older men per 100 older women. Among the oldest-old, there are only 53 men for every 100 women. The ratio of men to women at older ages is lower in the more developed regions (71 men per 100 women) than in the less developed regions (88 men per 100 women), since there are larger differences in life expectancy between the sexes in the more developed regions. Aged women are likely to be far more vulnerable to socioeconomic hardship than aged men.

The potential support ratio (PSR) is the number of persons between the ages of 15 and 64 to one older person aged 65 years or above. This ratio indicates the dependency burden on potential workers. According to the report, the impact of demographic aging is visible in the PSR, which has fallen and will continue to fall. Between 1950 and 2000, the PSR fell from 12 to nine people of working age for each person who is 65 years or older. By mid-century, the PSR is projected to fall to four working-age persons for each person 65 years or older.

The PSR is an important indicator in the planning of social-security schemes, especially pension schemes where current workers pay for the benefits of current retirees. The work-participation levels of the aged in developed and developing countries tend to be different. In the less developed regions, older persons participate more in the labor markets, particularly in the informal sector.

Migration processes where young adults leave their villages to seek jobs in cities, leaving behind the older members of the family, have greatly affected the status of the aged. Once remittances from the younger adults of the family dry up, economic uncertainty combined with the breaking up of traditional extended-family support structures will leave the old in rural families very vulnerable.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the HIV-AIDS pandemic, which has wiped out large numbers of young adults, has created new responsibilities for the aged as child-care givers. The issue of the aging of the rural population, the conference noted, had to be addressed by the developing nations through a range of innovative policy actions. Rural aging will have implications for food security, patterns of landholding, health services, labor markets, and so on.

Traditional perspectives on old age as a phase of dependency, sickness, and lack of productivity today have been overturned. With better standards of health awareness and nutrition, the elderly are making vital contributions to their societies. The U.N. has put forward the concept of “active aging” and has called for governments to put in place policies that will keep aged people active for as long as possible—with more opportunities, a supportive environment, and a better life.