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close this bookWIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 10, No. 4 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1998, 16 pages)
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Special Focus


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The World Ecology Report looked at global population trends in the summer of 1994, to prepare for World Information Transfer's participation in the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, Egypt, September 1994. The ICPD will be reviewed at a special session of the UN General Assembly in June 1999. Apart from this review, the last year of the twentieth century has been declared the United Nations International Year of Older Persons. Taken together, 1999 signals the population trend for the next era. Global population is ageing.

With the continuing decline in fertility and increasing life expectancy, the population of the world will age much faster in the next half-century than it has previously. The median age increased from 23.5 years in 1950 to 26.1 years in 1998. By 2050, the median age is projected to reach 37.8 years.


Beginning in the 1980s, the United Nations became interested in such concerns as to whether older people will be the contributors to or simply beneficiaries of improved standards of living. The UN adopted in 1982, the International Plan of Action on Ageing, the first internationally negotiated action document that puts forth specific recommendations for addressing the potential effects of global ageing.

Predicting population growth is an inexact science, as this graph showing UN projections clearly illustrates. The UN now estimates that world population will be between 3.6 and 27 billion by 2150, and the difference between the two projections is only one child per women. If fertility rates continue to drop until women have about two children each-the medium range projection-the population will stabilize at 10.8 billion. If the average becomes 2.6 children, the population will more than quadruple to 27 billion; if it falls to 1.6, the total will drop to 3.6 billion.

SOURCE: National Geographic Society, 1998

The Plan of Action was anchored to the basic principle that there is a symbiotic relationship between population ageing and economic development. One basic objective of the Plan was to ensure that, as the population of the world ages, the elderly have opportunities to contribute to, as well as share in, the benefits of development.

The Plan of Action was followed by three quadrennial reviews of its implementation -1985, 1989, 1993 and a separate study. The World Ageing Situation (United Nations, 1991). These have found one common and troubling conclusion: the elderly have come to be viewed as dependent beneficiaries of development, rather than contributors to it. Under such circumstances, the elderly may be perceived not only as obstacles to economic development but also as societal burdens who divert needed resources away from other age groups. This "intergenerational equity issue" often gives rise to heated debate among policy makers throughout the world.

Falling fertility and smaller families have prompted recent well-publicized claims that the "population explosion" is over. On the contrary, the United Nations Fund for Population's State of the World Population 1998 report points out, world population will continue to grow substantially for at least another 50 years. In 2050, it will be between 7.7 and 11.2 billion, with 9.4 billion considered most likely. Much of the growth will be due to "population momentum", the inevitable result of high birth rates in the recent past.

Over the past few years, the world's population has continued on its remarkable transition from one of high birth and death rates to one characterized by low birth and death rates. At the center of that transition has been the growth in the number and proportion of older persons. Such a rapid transformation is unprecedented in the history of mankind.

The current demographic revolution is predicted to continue well into the next centuries. According to the United Nations study The Ageing of the World's Population, the major projections will be the following:

· One 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 increase in the number of very old people (aged 80 + years): that group is projected to grow by a factor of from 8 to 10 times on the global scale between 1950 and 2050. Currently, the oldest old constitutes 11 percent of the population aged 60 and above, (see box on the oldest-old): that group is projected to grow by a factor of from 8 to 10 times on the global scale between 1950 and 2050. Currently, the oldest old constitutes 11 percent of the population aged 60 and above. By 2150, about a third of the older population will be 80 years or older (see box).

· The majority of older persons (55 percent) are women. Among the oldest old (80 years or older), 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 next century that proportion will reach one in four and in some countries one in two.

With one of the highest population growth rates in the industrialized world, the United States stands apart from Europe and Japan, which are projected to shrink in coming years. If American women continue averaging about two children each and immigration continues at its present pace (immigration accounts for one-third of the country's growth), the U.S. will add 120 million people in the next 50 years, the same number it has added in the past 50.

SOURCE: National Geographic Society, 1998

· 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.

· By the end of this century, the majority of the world's older persons (51 percent) will be living in urban areas. It is projected that by the year 2000, almost 78 percent of older women and more than 75 percent of older men in more developed regions will be living in urban areas. The majority of older persons of both sexes in developing regions are expected to remain rural (about 5 8 percent of women and 60 percent of men).

· At the individual level, it is estimated that more than 20 years will be added to the average life of an individual by the end of this century.


Paradoxically, while at the same time the number and proportion of people over 65 are increasing at an unprecedented rate, more young people than ever - over one billion between the ages of 15 and 24 - are entering their childbearing years. The rapid growth of these young and old "new generations" is challenging societies' ability to provide education and health care for the young, and social, medical and financial support for the elderly. This may lead to inter-generational competition for stretched resources.

In some developing regions over the next two decades, young people will swell the workforce compared to older and younger dependents. This temporary "bulge" in the working age population relative to older and younger dependents will create a temporary opportunity to build human capital and spur long-term development before dependency levels go up again as populations age. To take advantage of this 'demographic bonus," the report emphasizes that countries need to invest in education, jobs and health services, including reproductive health care.

In response to rising numbers of older people, many industrialized countries are considering reforms such as increasing the age of eligibility for public-sector pension funds. Whatever their design, the UNFPA report stresses, old-age security systems should guarantee a basic level of services to all, paying special attention to the needs of the most vulnerable, including the poorest, women-who make up a majority of the elderly - and the "oldest old".

Ageing populations will strain medical systems in many developing countries, which are still struggling to protect the health of younger age groups. The burden of disease will shift to older ages over the next several decades. Nevertheless, the report contends, health services should not be reoriented towards treatment of diseases affecting older people at the expense of preventive programs and services for poorer and less healthy people of all ages.

The rapid growth of adolescent and elderly populations demands a considerable investment in: 1) health care including reproductive health information and services; 2) education and job training for the young; 3) social and financial support for the elderly. Such investments have enormous practical benefits. Better health, social and financial support services can: 1) take the place of large families in providing for old age; 2) encourage smaller, healthier, better-educated families; 3) and enable older people to remain healthy, independent and productive longer.

Most developed countries may find themselves with lopsided societies that will be nearly impossible to sustain: a large number of elderly and not enough young people working to support them. The consequences will affect every program from health care and education to pension plans and military spending that requires public spending.


The more developed regions have been leading the process of population ageing since its onset at the beginning of this century. In 1998, for the first time the proportion of older persons exceeded that of children, respectively at 19.1 and 18.8 percent. By 2050, the more developed regions will have a very old population, with the proportion of older persons projected to increase to 33 percent in 2050, while the proportion of children will decline to 15 percent. The median age passed from 28.6 years in 1950 to 36.8 in 1998 and is projected to climb to 45.6 in 2050.


Those people aged 80 or over are often referred to as the oldest-old. They are still a rather small part of today's population: just 1.1 percent of the world's population is 80 years or older, yet it is the fastest growing population segment. For instance according to the United Nations Population Division, while total population between 1970 and 1998 grew by 60 percent, the size of the oldest-old increased more than two-fold, from 26.7 million to 66.0 million, or by 147 percent.

For the first time, the numbers of octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians have been estimated and projected for all countries of the world. This new information is in the 1998 Revision of the official United Nations population estimates and projections providing for the first time detailed estimates and projections of the demographic characteristics of the oldest-old, i.e. those who are 80 years or older.

According to the Revision, in 1998, 66 million persons in the world were aged 80 or over. By 2050, this number is expected to increase almost 6-fold by 2050 to reach 370 million persons. Growth rates of the oldest-old will even accelerate in the future; in 2050, this population group is expected to be almost 6 times as large as today.

In past Revisions, the oldest-old were treated as one open-ended age group. But with its fast growth, more detailed information about the demographic characteristics of this segment of the population became increasingly more needed. The United Nation's Population Division has therefore extended the age format of its estimates and projections up to age 100 and above, showing for the first time the age groups 80-84, 85-89, 90-94, 95-99 and 100 and above.

The proportion of the oldest-old is currently (1998) largest in Northern Europe (3.9 percent), the three countries with the highest proportion of the oldest-old are Sweden (4.8%), Norway (4.2%) and the United Kingdom (4.1%). Northern Europe is followed by Western Europe (3.7 percent) and Southern Europe (3.2 percent). The lowest proportions - at or below half a percent - are found in Africa, Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.

In 1998, China, with 10.5 million people in this age category, has the largest number of the oldest-old; 16 percent of all people 80 or over in the world today live in China. The second largest oldest-old population lives in the United States of America (8.6 million). India has 5.7 million people in this category, Japan 4.3 million, Germany (3.1 million) and the Russian Federation (3.0 million). Together, these countries account for 53 percent of the oldest-old globally.

There will be 5 countries in 2050 with 10 million and more people age 80 or over: China (100 million), India (47 million), United States of America (27 million), Japan (12 million) and Indonesia (10 million). Together they will account for 53 percent of all the oldest-old in the world. In that same year, 2050, 13 countries are projected to have proportions of oldest-old at 10 percent or higher: Italy (14 percent), Spain, Switzerland, Hong Kong, China, Greece, Japan, Austria, Singapore, Germany, Netherlands, Macao, Sweden and Belgium.

The age distribution of the oldest-old is very steep. Octogenarians outnumber nonagenarians by a wide margin, and the proportion of centenarians among the oldest-old is extremely small. It is estimated that in 1998 about 89 percent of the oldest-old (59 million) were octogenarians (aged 80 -89) and about eleven percent (7 million) were nonagenarians (aged 90-99). The proportion of centenarians among the oldest-old was extremely small 0.2 percent or 135 thousand.

The absolute size of the oldest-old is going to change dramatically. There are two important trends to note in these projections: the older the age group, the faster it grows, and the higher its femininity ratio. The femininity ratio is 181 among octogenarians, but it is significantly higher for nonagenarians (287) and centenarians (386).

Like most of the developing world Latin America's population is growing relatively quickly but not uniformly or predictably. Bolivian women, for instance, have twice as many children (4.8) as Chilean women. In Brazil women bear an average of only 2.5 children, while in more developed Argentina women have been averaging close to 3 children each for decades. Demographer Carl Haub credits cultural preferences: "Not everyone wants 2.0 children."

Europe and Africa are going in opposite directions fast. With the highest birthrate of any continent, Africa has grown from 470 million people in 1980 to 763 million in 1998, and it is projected to grow to two billion by 2050, Women in sub-Saharan Africa bear an average 6 children each; European women average 1.4 children, too few to replenish the population. Europe is projected to shrink 12 percent by 2050, from 728 million to 638 million.

SOURCE: National Geographic Society, 1998

Until recently, ageing has been much slower in the less developed regions. The proportion of children has declined from 38 percent in 1950 to 33 percent in 1998, while the proportion of older persons has increased from 6 to 8 percent during the same period. By 2050, the proportion of older persons will increase three-fold to 21 percent, while the proportion of children will decline by more than one third to 20 percent. The median age increased from 21.3 years in 1950 to 23.9 in 1998 and is projected to reach 36.7 in 2050. By then the less developed regions will have an age structure similar to that of the more developed regions half-a-century earlier.

This ageing process becomes more dramatic when one looks at the growth of the number of older persons. For the world, it will mean an increase from 580 million older persons in 1998 to almost two billion (1,970 million) in 2050. The change will be relatively moderate in the more developed regions, from 226 million in 1998 to 376 million in 2050, a two thirds increase. The increase will be much more dramatic in the less developed regions, where the population aged 60 or over will be multiplied more than nine times, from 171 million in 1998 to 1,594 million in 2050.

Europe is, and is projected to remain, the major area of the world most affected by ageing. The proportion of children is projected to decline from 18 percent in 1998 to 14 percent in 2050 while the proportion of older persons will increase from 20 percent in 1998 to 35 percent in 2050. By then, the proportion of older persons win be nearly two and-a half times that of children and one in every three persons will be 60 years or above. The median age is projected to increase from 37.1 years in 1998 to 47.4 in 2050.

Southern Europe, with a proportion of children of 16 percent and of older persons of 22 percent in 1998, is the world region with the oldest population. By 2050, the proportion of children will have declined to 13 percent while the proportion of older persons will have reached 39 percent. Italy recently became the first nation in history where there are more people over 60 than there are under the age of 20. The oldest country in the world in 1998 is Italy, with 1.6 persons aged 60 or above for each person below 15 years of age, followed by Greece, Japan, Spain and Germany. The Italian city of Bologna has the lowest fertility rate in the world.

By 2050, the oldest country of the world will be Spain, closely followed by Italy, with respectively 3.6 and 3.4 persons aged 60 or above for each person below 15 years of age. The other areas of the world most touched by ageing are, in decreasing order, North America, Oceania, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Africa is the youngest major area of the world with a proportion of children of 43 percent and a proportion of older persons of 5 percent in 1998. Eastern Africa, with a proportion of children of 46 percent and a proportion of older persons of 4 percent in 1998 is the world's youngest region. Uganda is the world youngest country with one in every 31 persons aged 60 or over, followed by Zambia and Yemen. By 2050, Africa will still have a young age structure, with twice as many children as elderly, respectively 24 percent and 12 percent in 2050.

This demographic transition towards an older population is a process that occurs gradually, whereby society moves from a situation of high rates of fertility and mortality to one of low rates. This transition is characterized first by declines in infant and childhood mortality as infectious and parasitic diseases are controlled. Whole populations begin to age when fertility rates decline and mortality rates at all ages improve. Successive birth cohorts may eventually become smaller and smaller, as seen for more-developed nation in 1996. If projected declines in fertility and mortality in less-developed countries proceed as expected, the overall population age structure will lose its strictly triangular shape and the elderly population will increase throughout the world. As world population nears 6 billion, record numbers of young and old may push the direction of social and economic development onto new and equitable paths.

SOURCES: Specter, Michael. "Population Implosion Worries a Graying Europe", New York Times, July 10, 1998; United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, "Ageing, and the Oldest Old"; Wisensale, S, "World Population Ageing: the Coming Intergenerational Equity Debate," UN Bulletin on Ageing 2/3 1997, Division for Social Development; UNFPA, The State of the World Population 1998-The New Generations;; U.S. Bureau of the Census, International Programs Center, International Data Base.


SOURCE: National Geographic Society, 1998