Ageing world

In many countries people are living longer and having fewer children – an unprecedented global demographic transition. While population ageing is most prevalent in affluent countries such as Europe and Japan, it is increasingly apparent in developing countries in the middle-income bracket too – particularly China and smaller countries like Sri Lanka. 1

Increased numbers of elderly citizens presents benefits and challenges for any society. On one hand, they provide a wealth of skills, knowledge, wisdom and mentorship;2 on the other, current models of healthcare, infrastructure, finances, employment and social care based on youthful populations are not well adapted to support (and reap potential benefits of) an ageing population . In both cases policies and paradigms will need to change to better accommodate their needs, and prevent tension developing between the old and the young.3

However, the rise in median ages is by no means universal. Countries with rapid population growth and youthful populations face a completely different set of benefits and challenges; a young labour force is typically accompanied by a need to provide food, housing, education and meaningful employment, without which young people’s productive potential cannot be fully realised.

It will be essential for those societies facing rapidly ageing and growing youthful populations to consider how the social fabric and infrastructural needs will change. But for all societies, there is an opportunity to rethink how care is delivered and how older generations are valued. Some ways to achieve this are through managing public finances and facilitating older people’s mobility and economic and social contribution. While the ageing demographic phenomenon has long been recognised and discussed, governments and businesses are only just beginning to respond to the challenges and opportunities it presents. 4

Last updated: 26 February 2016.

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Current trajectory

The rate of ageing

  • The older population is growing. According to the United Nations, the percentage of the global population aged 60 years or over increased from 8.5% in 1980 to 12.3% in 2015 and is projected to rise further to 21.5% in 2050. 1
  • The proportion of super-aged among older people is increasing. Among those aged 60 or over worldwide, 14% were aged 80 or over in 2015. By 2050, the projected 434 million people aged 80 or over will account for 21% of the global population aged 60 and above. 2
  • The pace of ageing is the most rapid in low and middle income countries. France had almost 150 years to adapt to a change from 10% to 20% in the proportion of the population that was older than 60 years. However, places such as Brazil, China and India will have slightly more than 20 years to make the same adaptation, according to the World Health Organization. 3
  • As of 2015, Japan is home to the world’s oldest population, with a third of its population aged 60 years or over. The next oldest populations are in Italy (29% aged 60 or over), Germany (28%), and Finland (27%). 4
  • Europe is currently the world’s oldest region where 24% of the population is over 60 years old and that percentage is poised to increase to 34% by 2050. While Africa has the youngest age distribution of any major area, it is also projected to age rapidly, with the population aged 60 years or over rising from 5% today to 9% by 2050. 5

More years in our lives

  • Global life expectancy increased by 5.8 years in men and 6.6 years in women between 1990 and 2013 due to major healthcare advances. 71 years was the average life expectancy at birth of the global population in 2013 as compared to 65 years in 1990. 1
  • In high-income regions, falling death rates from most cancers (down by 15% between 1990 and 2013) and cardiovascular diseases (down by 22%) have increased life expectancy, while rapidly declining death rates for diarrhoea, lower respiratory tract infections and neonatal disorders have helped extend life expectancy in low-income countries. 2
  • There has been a renewed vigour in attempt to extend lifespans and fixing the ‘problem’ of ageing, especially in Silicon Valley and the biotech industry. In September 2013 Google announced the creation of Calico, which aims to develop anti-ageing drugs and reverse engineer the biology that controls lifespan so as to enable people to live longer and healthier. In March 2014, pioneering American biologist and technologist Craig Venter announced a new company called Human Longevity Inc, which aims to develop a genetic database to better understand ageing and healthy living. 3

Fewer babies… generally

  • Global fertility rates have simultaneously dropped. Worldwide, average fertility rates for 2010 to 2015 fell to an average of 2.5 children for every woman from an average of 3 children per woman from 1990 to 1995. These changes are largely because more women are seeking out higher education, entering the work force later and achieving more economic independence as a result, according to the UN. Access to family planning services and contraception was also directly linked to declining fertility rates. 1
  • There are still huge differences in in fertility rates at a regional level. The average fertility rate is 5.6 children per woman in Central and West Africa, versus about 1.6 children per woman in Eastern and Southern Europe, where rates are among the lowest. 2

Implications

  • An increasing number of today’s mature workers will resist retiring in their 60s, given that they may well will live for another 30 years or more. Many will need to carry on working for economic reasons, but others may be more motivated by a desire to continue putting a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and expertise to good use. Employers who retain their services could see major benefits – particularly in terms of training or mentoring younger employees, or retaining employees whose skillsets are difficult to replace.
  • Demand for a new paradigm in social integration and elderly care is likely to increase as populations age. Workforces will need to be retooled across the world; in ageing economies, older workers will have to learn new skills, and migrant workers may be needed to supplement their roles or provide care services for the oldest old. In emerging growth markets, the gaps in supply and demand for people with a university-level education will also need to be filled. 1
  • Although people are living longer lives, the prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, stroke, dementia, Alzheimer’s and cancer is increasing as the global population ages, placing greater strain on healthcare systems. 2 Older people are also vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness owing to loss of friends and family, mobility or income. Such issues are deeply socially embedded, necessitating more nuanced, personalised and preventive healthcare solutions.
  • There might be a rising gap between the global affluent and poor in the affordability of emerging treatments that maintain youthfulness (both in good health and in appearance). There are signs that we may face a new sort of inequality around how people age – i.e. those who “get old” in the usual way, or those who can afford to extend their capacities for youthful lifestyles and appearance.

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