The Ageing of the World's Population

May, 2001


Over the past few years, the world's population has continued on its remarkable transition path from a state of high birth and death rates to one characterized by low birth and death rates. At the heart of that transition has been the growth in the number and proportion of older persons. Such a rapid, large and ubiquitous growth has never been seen in the history of civilization.

The current demographic revolution is predicted to continue well into the coming centuries. Its major features include the following:

  • One out of every ten persons is now 60 years or above; by 2050, one out of five will be 60 years or older; and by 2150, one out of three persons will be 60 years or older.
  • The older population itself is ageing. The oldest old (80 years or older) is the fastest growing segment of the older population. They currently make up 11 percent of the 60+ age group and will grow to 19 percent by 2050. The number of centenarians (aged 100 years or older) is projected to increase 15-fold from approximately 145,000 in 1999 to 2.2 million by 2050.
  • The majority of older persons (55 percent) are women. Among the oldest old, 65 percent are women.
  • Striking differences exist between regions. One out of five Europeans, but one out of twenty Africans, is 60 years or older.
  • In some developed countries today, the proportion of older persons is close to one in five. During the first half of the 21st century that proportion will reach one in four and in some countries one in two.
  • As the tempo of ageing in developing countries is more rapid than in developed countries, developing countries will have less time than the developed countries to adapt to the consequences of population ageing.
  • The majority of the world's older persons (51 percent) live in urban areas. By 2025 this is expected to climb to 62 percent of older persons, although large differences exist between more and less developed regions. In developed regions, 74 percent of older persons are urban dwellers, while in less developed regions, which remain predominantly rural, 37 percent of older persons reside in urban areas.
  • Over the last half of the 20th century, 20 years were added to the average lifespan, bringing global life expectancy to its current level of 66 years. Large differences exist between countries, however. In the least developed regions, men reaching age 60 can expect only 14 more years of life and women, 16 more, while in the more developed regions, life expectancy at age 60 is 18 years for men and 22 years for women.
  • The impact of population ageing is increasingly evident in the old-age dependency ratio, the number of working age persons (age 15 - 64 years) per older person (65 years or older) that is used as an indicator of the 'dependency burden' on potential workers. Between 2000 and 2050, the old-age dependency ratio will double in more developed regions and triple in less developed regions. The potential socioeconomic impact on society that may result from an increasing old-age dependency ratio is an area of growing research and public debate.


Implications of an Ageing Society

Dissolving the Boundaries of Age

We have reached a significant crossroads, the closing of one millennium and the beginning of another. This is a momentous occasion by all accounts. Yet what is remarkable is what awaits the world in this new era as it undergoes a demographic revolution. The world is changing as it ages, and just as older persons have been agents of that change, they must also be its beneficiaries.

At the same time, we must rethink rigid distinctions that define age and give it boundaries. Everyone, individually and collectively, is joined in this single human venture, and everyone will respond, in their own way, to the opportunities as well as the challenges. Ageing is not a separate issue from social integration, gender advancement, economic stability or issues of poverty. It has developed a connection with many global agendas and will play, increasingly, a prominent role in the way society interacts with economic and social welfare institutions, family and community life and the roles of women.

The complex infrastructure of society as well as the unique life course of individuals can be dramatically altered by a progressive upward shift in the global population. The total effect cannot be easily absorbed. The present imperative is that societies must respond to the extraordinary potential and range of variability in individual ageing, and seize the opportunity to rethink our notion of limits and recognize the far-reaching benefits societies stand to gain from the continuing contributions of their older citizens.

We have all heard of the remarkable demographic change that is under way. But our task is not to dwell on what we already know. It is rather to equip ourselves and future generations with the tools to meet its challenge and imagine what can be. Let us see this new century as an opportunity to reinforce belief in the possibilities of non-violence and peaceful cooperation in order to promote progress for all ages in all areas.

We are all constituents of an ageing society, rural and city dwellers, public and private sector identities, families and individuals, old and young alike. It is crucial that societies adjust to this human paradigm as record numbers of people live into   very old age, if we are to move towards a society for all ages.

[Let us]…continue the dialogue and build on partnerships that can bring us closer to a society that weaves all ages into the larger human community in which we thrive.


A Call for Revolutionary Thinking

We live in an ageing world. While this has been recognized for some time in developed countries, it is only recently that this phenomenon has been fully acknowledged. Global communication is "shrinking" the world, and global ageing is "maturing" it. The increasing presence of older persons in the world is making people of all ages more aware that we live in a diverse and multigenerational society. It is no longer possible to ignore ageing, regardless of whether one views it positively or negatively.

Demographers note that if current trends in ageing continue as predicted, a demographic revolution, wherein the proportions of the young and the old will undergo a historic crossover, will be felt in just three generations. This portrait of change in the world's population parallels the magnitude of the industrial revolution - traditionally considered the most significant social and economic breakthrough in the history of humankind since the Neolithic period. It marked the beginning of a sustained movement towards modern economic growth in much the same way that globalization is today marking an unprecedented and sustained movement toward a "global culture". The demographic revolution, it is envisaged, will be at least as powerful.

While the future effects are not known, a likely scenario is one where both the challenges as well as the opportunities will emerge from a vessel into which exploration and research, dialogue and debate are poured. Challenges arise as social and economic structures try to adjust to the simultaneous phenomenon of diminishing young cohorts with rising older ones, and opportunities present themselves in the sheer number of older individuals and the vast resources societies stand to gain from their contribution.

This ageing of the population permeates all social, economic and cultural spheres. Revolutionary change calls for new, revolutionary thinking, which can position policy formulation and implementation on sounder footing. In our ageing world, new thinking requires that we view ageing as a lifelong and society-wide phenomenon, not a phenomenon exclusively pertaining to older persons.

Ageing is Lifelong

Individuals begin their ageing process at the moment of birth, and go through the life course accumulating a range of experiences that may positively or negatively affect their capabilities and well being in later years. Age-adjusted policies and programmes that encourage workplace flexibility, lifelong learning and healthy lifestyles, especially during transitional periods, e.g., youth to midlife, midlife to later years, can influence choices with accumulative effects. A clear priority target for old age policies are the younger generations, who may have to reinvent themselves again and again in fast-changing societies; they will need to cultivate healthy lifestyles, flexibility and foresight, continually upgrade work skills and maintain social networks.

Environments for growth, learning and moving toward creative fulfillment should be within the reach of all. What we are learning today about the extraordinary range of abilities and interests of older persons can help us in the task of creating such environments and remove obstacles for new generations.

Ageing is Society-Wide

Ageing occupies connecting chambers within the development landscape, interacting with global patterns in labour and capital markets, governmental pensions, services, and traditional support systems, all which are further shaped by technological change and cultural transformations.

The course of population ageing is now worldwide and flows freely into social and economic support systems, which are directly influenced by the changing age structure. Support systems come in numerous forms that range from the formal to the informal; some are based upon local community membership and solidarity, some are cooperative ventures, some  private, company-based schemes and some are provided by the state and through welfare programmes. The sustainability of these systems to manage risk or cushion support in both the developed and developing world is undergoing tremendous change. The ageing of populations is affecting the older-person support ratio (the number of persons aged 15-64 years per older persons aged 65 years or older), which is falling in both more and less developed regions, having important implications for social and economic structures.

If the ageing of populations is revolutionizing our social and economic infrastructure, globalization and technological advancement are revolutionizing our "tool" system - that is, management and workplace skills, creative synthesis, political and social development. One element of this system is information technology, which, in the last five years alone, has transformed the speed and manner in which access to information is rendered and received. Older individuals are increasingly tapping into this culture in varying degrees, often in multigenerational settings, meeting the educational demands to stay informed of new technologies and systems. The majority of older persons, however, mostly in developing countries, do not have access. When whole communities are sidelined in this information tidal wave, existing gaps and imbalances become all the more apparent.

While a course seems charted for the globalization of information and technology, this is not the case regarding how the world will respond to gaps in the communications infrastructure, nor in its most durable underpinning: human relationships. As global ageing converges with technology and globalization, a new culture has emerged, with its own production and consumption patterns and its own facilities and services. But a new 'culture' can also contribute to and activate policy dialogue, research and training, and the building of the crucial elements of a global ageing society.

Meanings and Images in an Ageing Society

Images of ageing are rooted in culture and cut right to the marrow of the society in which we live. However, the understanding of one's language and culture can very often contrast with the meanings and images given it by others. This paradox also mimics ageing in advanced societies, where, with the accumulation of years and experience, roles diminish, and images play a part.

Mass media, the machine of image-making, is also a link in the globalization chain, and can have profound effects on the developing world, and particularly on the older women who live there. For its part, the flow and interchange of ideas and information through new technologies is as much an extraordinary achievement as it is an ordinary fact of life. The positive impact that is gained from other ideas, learning about other populations, areas of expertise, and alternative ways of life is boundless. But knowledge and images are often mutual passengers in the information voyage and the image landscape conveyed by the western media weighs heavily on the side of glorifying youth, while either omitting older persons or depicting them in stereotypes. This has a particular impact on the lives of older women, as they tend to suffer greater political, social, and economic exclusion than do older men.

As society ages however, it also changes in ways that relate to age. Perceptions of the transitions that mark the boundaries of age are being altered as family, kinship and community structures change. In many parts of the world it is not uncommon today to be part of a four-generation family, where the chronological rules for assuming the roles of grandparents or grandchildren are increasingly blurred. At the same time, more individuals are growing older outside of traditional family networks and are simulating family life through communities or primary groups. The rhythm of the life cycle continues to develop through these different dynamics and, consequently, is not as tightly bound by chronological age or stages as it once may have been.

The same can be said for images that surround the idea of change. While change often arouses anxiety, challenges that stem from new orders of complexity should be met with inquiry rather than reproach. Situations or choices that once seemed incompatible, work or retirement, strength or vulnerability, can be approached and accommodated within the same creative mix that occupies the vastness and diversity of life in the human community.

The new architecture of ageing requires policies that remove obstacles and facilitate contributions. It also requires seminal thinking and images that reflect reality and potential, not stereotypes and myths. So relative are the experiences of ageing in different parts of the world, and so complex and multiple their roles, that the world can no longer accept images of ageing as a panorama of near homogeneity.

Policy Considerations

Old age policies were designed, for most of the 20th century, with a youthful society in mind. From this point onward, policies for older persons, younger persons and those in between, must be designed with an ageing society in mind, society where soon, every third individual will be over the age of 60. International, national and local communities must begin now to adjust and design their infrastructures, policies, plans and resources.

Policy interventions that include social and human, as well as economic investments, can prevent unnecessary dependencies from arising whether in late life for individuals or downstream in ageing societies. When judicious investments are made in advance, experts suggest that ageing can be changed from a drain on resources to build-up of humane social, economic and environmental capital. This requires investing in the phases of life, fostering enabling societies, and creating flexible but vibrant collaborations in the process, through which the future building of a society for all ages can take hold in the present.

Finally, recognition of the uniqueness that unfolds throughout one's life is core to igniting society's embrace of the contributions of its older citizens. The "package" of knowledge, wisdom and experience that so often comes with age is part of an inner awareness that cannot be traded, sold or stolen. It should, however, be activated, amplified and utilized in all the crossroads, fields and storefronts of society, and in the windows of our creative imaginations.

Global Action on Aging
PO Box 20022, New York, NY 10025
Phone: +1 (212) 557-3163 - Fax: +1 (212) 557-3164

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