Coming of Age, and Then Some

A Graying World Signals a Dark Future

MADRID, Spain, APRIL 13, 2002 ( This week´s U.N. conference held in Madrid showcased the problems of an aging world population [for details of the financial implications, see our analysis of Feb. 23].

Just prior to the Madrid meeting the U.N. Population Division — not to be confused with the U.N. Population Fund, or UNFPA, which finances family planning programs — published “World Population Aging: 1950-2050.” The report highlighted four major points.

1. The current level of population aging is without parallel in world history. By 2050, the number of older persons will exceed the number of young for the first time. By 1998 this reversal in relative proportions of young and old had already taken place in the more developed regions.

2. The increase of older age groups in national populations, both in absolute numbers and in relation to the working-age population, has a direct bearing on the intergenerational and intragenerational equity and solidarity that are the foundations of society.

3. In the economic area, population aging will have an impact on economic growth, savings, investment and consumption, labor markets, pensions, taxation and intergenerational transfers. In the social sphere, population aging affects health and health care, family composition and living arrangements, housing and migration. In the political arena, aging can influence voting patterns and representation.

4. Population aging is expected to continue in the 21st century. The proportion of older persons was 8% in 1950 and 10% in 2000, and is projected to reach 21% in 2050.

World population now includes about 600 million older people, triple the number recorded 50 years earlier. By midcentury, there will be some 2 billion older people.

The elderly population is growing by 2% each year, considerably faster than the population as a whole. For at least the next 25 years, the older population is expected to continue growing more rapidly than other age groups. The growth rate of those 60 or older will reach an annual growth rate of 2.8% in 2025-2030.

By midcentury there will be only 4 people of working age, 15 to 64 years, to support every retired person, compared with 12 in 1950 and 9 in 2000.

Child numbers continue to fall

For some time now it has been clear that numbers of elderly were due to rise in coming decades, as the generation of baby boomers reached retirement. Coupled with this trend has been a rapid decline in fertility in many nations.

Last month the U.N. Population Division held an “Expert Group Meeting on Completing the Fertility Transition” in New York. When world population reached the mark of 6 billion only two year ago, the Christian Science Monitor noted March 11, “scientists were sounding alarm bells over unchecked population growth, especially in the developing world.”

Now, however, U.N. Population Division director James Chamie is on record saying that before the end of this century the number of humans will most likely start to shrink. This compares with U.N. forecasts released only last year that said population would not stabilize (at about 10 billion) before 2150.

There are 74 countries in what the United Nations calls the intermediate-level fertility group, where women have between 2.1 and 5 children each, the Associated Press reported March 12. This group accounts for about 43% of the world´s population. The latest U.N. studies suggest those nations are heading toward a fertility rate of 1.85 children for each woman by 2050, below the level of 2.1 needed to ensure generational replacement, and a decrease in past estimates that translates into 85 million fewer people in India alone.

Further examples of falling numbers abound. Couples in Mexico now have an average of 2.3 children, down from 7 in the early 1970s, according to census data from the National Population Council. The country´s population growth rate has been slashed to 1.38% a year, down from 3.3% in the early 1970s, according to a Feb. 22 report in the Financial Times.

In Japan a research center predicts the population will peak in 2006 and fall rapidly over the next 50 years, the Associated Press reported Jan. 30. According to the Health Ministry´s Institute on Population and Social Security Research, the graying of Japan will accelerate with people over 65 becoming 35.7% of the population by 2050, roughly double the 17.4% in 2000. The number of Japanese is projected to reach 127.8 million by 2006, then decline to 100.6 million by 2050.

This poses profound social challenges, the Observer newspaper in Britain noted Feb. 3. Other countries hope to compensate for a lower birthrate with immigration, but in Japan foreigners account for only 1% of the population. The United Nations says Japan needs 600,000 immigrants a year to maintain current population levels. But last year Japan accepted only 36 refugees and tightened restrictions on entering the country.

In the rest of Asia, population experts have warned that the decline in fertility and mortality over the last 50 years could lead to serious social and economic problems, BBC reported April 10. Already 14 countries in Asia have fertility rates below replacement level. The elderly population has already overtaken the younger generation in Japan and will do so by 2020 in Singapore and 2035 in China, according to Bhakta Gubhaju of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

“The labor force in major eastern Asian countries will age faster than any population in history over the next several decades,” according to Gui-Ying Cao of the Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Some European countries, notably France, have seen birthrates recover, but they are still below replacement levels. Spain, for example, reported an increase in population for the year 2000. This was due almost entirely to immigration, since the fertility rate in Spain is only 1.23 children per woman, the paper El País reported Jan. 10.

Spain´s Minister for International Cooperation, Miguel Ángel Cortés, told the U.N. conference in Madrid that other countries should not make the same mistakes as some developed countries did when they followed “policies that deprive society of children,” the newspaper ABC reported April 9. “Spain is living an authentic demographic disaster,” exclaimed Cortés.

“A senile nation”

A RAND report published late last year, “Dire Demographics: Population Trends in the Russian Federation,” pointed out that population there has declined by 3 million since 1992. The annual number of Russian births fell by 1.3 million between 1987 and 1999, while the annual number of Russian deaths increased by 500,000.

“Some analysts fear that the Russian population, currently at about 145 million, could decline to less than 100 million,” noted the report. The study also notes that the government has few resources to help the elderly, who only have very limited means of their own on which they can draw.

“Year by year, we, the citizens of Russia, are getting fewer and fewer. … We face the threat of becoming a senile nation,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin in his State of the Nation Address to the Duma in July 2000, according to the RAND study.

His words were echoed recently by Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. “The statistics are frightening,” Ciampi was quoted as saying in the daily La Stampa on March 27. “The nation looks like an upside-down pyramid with old people more numerous than youths,” he added. The world is only starting to realize what a dark future awaits its graying ranks.

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