The world is ageing

In January 2023 for the first time China’s population shrunk in the last 60 years, and India became the most populous nation. The window of demographic dividend in our country, where more than half the population is under 25 years of age, is slowly moving towards a peak around 2040. Some states in the country have already moved into the ageing phase. It is estimated that by 2050 India will have the world’s largest population of older adults!

Not just India, the globe is ageing. In 2021, one in ten people in the world were 65 and above, by 2050 one in six will be. The ‘World Social Report 2023: Leaving No none Behind in an ageing world’ published by the UN draws attention to the rapid greying of the planet. The figures could be a revelation for most of us.

Globally the number of people above 80 years is rising even faster than those over 65 years. By 2050, there will be 459 million 80 plus, triple their number in 2021. Women will be the majority of the population above 65 and 80 years in 2050, about 54% and 59% respectively.

Currently, Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Eastern and South East Asia are farthest on the ageing curve. In Japan it is reported that diapers for the elderly outsell those for children! Countries of South Asia, West Asia, North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are in the intermediate stage, while sub–Saharan Africa is at the early stage of this curve.

Population ageing is a sign of collective success. This demographic transition is a result of better living conditions – better education, healthcare, and nutrition. These have increased longevity, coupled with lower levels of fertility. As the Report says, ‘population ageing is an irreversible global trend.’ An ageing population is a reflection of the demographic transition towards longer lives and smaller families. An ageing population impacts all parts of economies and societies, from health care and education to employment and taxation.

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Population averages often conceal the vast inequalities and diverse needs and abilities of older people. For example, poverty levels at older ages are typically higher among women. They tend to outlive men, have fewer resources, and are more likely to live alone. In both developed and developing countries, older persons are more likely to live in poorer households than working-age people. COVID-19 impacted the elderly much more in terms of access to health care and mortality.

When a country gets older, a shrinking percentage of working age population has to support a growing percentage of retirees. The cost of this high dependency burden translates directly into time and resources in caring for the aged, and indirectly through taxes that fund pensions and health care.

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There are many solutions and ideas being talked about to deal with an ageing population. Raising retirement ages, allowing older people to work lesser hours, rewarding voluntary work, care work and promoting artistic pursuits among the elderly. Further, tweaking labour markets, increasing automation and retirement ages, providing pension and health care systems to ensure that support for the elderly is both adequate and fiscally sustainable are also some steps. Developing the best policies for addressing the challenges of population ageing will require investment in data collection and research.

When the world population was in the process of doubling from 3 to 6 billion between 1960 and 2000, many doomsday predictions were made. However, looking back the per capita income doubled in this period, and longevity also increased. The world responds to demographic changes through technology interventions, behaviour change and policy.

Countries at all stages of population ageing need to take forward-looking measures to adapt and innovate. Coupled with climate change, the ageing of the globe is critical. How nations respond to it will shape their destinies.

Photo by Ingo Joseph on

Published in English, Hindi and Marathi in Lokmat, and in issue dated 18-3-2023 of The South Asia Times.


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