The age of ageing

Vincenzina Santoro
27 February 2011
Reproduced with Permission

"Population ageing is unprecedented, a process without parallel in the history of humanity."

This strong statement comes from the Population Division of the United Nations, the global authority on population data and policies. In a little-noted document entitled World Population Ageing 2009 the report also stressed that population ageing is "pervasive, profound and enduring." All countries are experiencing the same phenomenon. The economic and social consequences are extensive and the process will continue to unfold rapidly, especially in the more advanced countries. In 2009 according to UN data, 22 percent of the population in developed countries was aged 60 or over. That share is expected to rise to 33 percent in 2050. The elderly cohort now outnumbers children under 15 and by 2050 there are likely to be two over 60s for every child.

According to the UN, the number of older persons tripled in the past 60 years and will triple again by 2050. The "oldest old" -- aged 80 and over -- now account for four percent of global population. They are the most rapidly growing age group, with women surviving in greater numbers than men. An interesting anecdote: the American greeting card company Hallmark reported selling 85,000 birthday cards for centenarians in 2007.

Another recent UN publication dealing with population policies queried governments as to their primary population concerns. In response, 79 percent of governments in developed countries considered ageing "a major concern" followed by HIV/AIDS, low fertility, and "a small or declining number of persons of working age." Data by continental area show an enormous contrast regarding the significance of population ageing, as indicated below:

It is stunning that all of North America is worried about population ageing as is most of Europe and Latin America. Africa, which only has 15 percent of global population, also has more countries with a high fertility rate and a low level of life expectancy. Oceania is sparsely populated.

According to UN data, there were 29 countries or territories that had 20 percent or more of their population aged 60 or over in 2009. Japan headed the list followed by European countries, although the US Virgin Islands were also in the group - which could be due to outsiders who chose to retire there. The top five besides Japan (29.7%) were Italy (26.4%), Germany (25.7%), Sweden (24.7%), and Bulgaria (24.2%). In 30th place came Canada (19.5%) while the United States (17.9%) ranked in 42nd place.

Among the 196 countries covered, there was a stark contrast between the countries above and those that had the lowest share of over 60s in their populations: Qatar (1.9%), United Arab Emirates (1.9%), Burkina Faso (3.3%), Sierra Leone (3.5%), and Niger (3.5%). The median age of countries also showed an extreme variance: Japan's median age was 44.4 years, almost triple that of Niger at the bottom of the list with a mere 15 years.

Japan is the undisputed leader in ageing. At 82.3, Japan has the longest life expectancy - a tribute to good health, hygiene and local cuisine. With a shrinking population and hyper-ageing, the Japanese delegate at the 2011UN Commission for Social Development session mentioned in his statement that: "Japan has recently become a true 'society of the aged.' The proportion of the Japanese population aged 65 and over now exceeds 23 percent."

The rapidly ageing Japanese population underlies a weak economic performance over the past two decades. The economy, which for many years seemed to have done everything right and was the envy of other nations, began to stall in the 1990s. This was due not only to a questionable combination of economic and financial policies but also due to a rapidly ageing population, a low birth rate and a reluctance to admit migrants from other countries to enhance the domestic labor force. The resulting economic stagnation, which led to "the lost decade," as it has come to be called, seems to have extended well into the new millennium.

The top three ageing countries - Japan, Italy and Germany - among others have enacted or promoted measures to deal with the issue. Efforts have focused on removing incentives to early retirement, allowing older persons to work longer, increasing the statutory retirement age for both men and women, encouraging more women to enter the labor force, and efforts to strengthen pension systems.

Pension obligations are becoming more burdensome as the members of the baby boom generation reach retirement age. According to the OECD, pensioners in developed countries can expect to live 20.4 years in retirement. Japan's public pension fund, the largest in the world with assets around $1.5 trillion is scrambling in search of higher returns to prepare for higher outlays - not unlike private pension funds. Meanwhile a shrinking number of workers face higher taxes to support public pension schemes.

For Japan, heightened government spending both in response to a long period of economic weakness and to meet growing pension obligations have resulted in an expansion of government debt that, in relation to GDP, is currently nearly twice that of Greece. The key mitigating element is that Japanese people have one of the highest savings rates in the world and much of those savings are placed in government securities. Unlike Greece, the vast majority of Japanese government debt is held domestically, including by the older population who undoubtedly have started drawing down these savings to maintain well being. Outliving one's savings remains a risk everywhere.

On a social level, the elderly in developed countries are already beginning to experience the same fate as that of unwanted unborn children. Euthanasia is the elder equivalent of abortion. Both processes terminate life. One is a victim who never lived to be born and the other an individual who lived too long.

Even in Catholic Italy there is interest in legalized euthanasia (it has the second highest proportion of persons over 60 in the world). In 2006, a famous oncologist, Umberto Veronesi, wrote a short book that became a best-seller entitled Il Diritto di Morire ("The Right to Die"). (It has not been translated into English.) In it he argued that a patient who is seriously ill and on the verge of death forms a strong bond with his or her doctor that the latter can perceive the will of the patient, including the futility of advanced therapies and the desire to die with dignity.

Unfortunately for the eminent doctor, the "desire to die with dignity" does not mean waiting for God to call the patient to Himself. Dr. Veronesi is a non-believer who praises Belgium and the Netherlands, two of the European countries that have openly permitted euthanasia. In Italy, he may be highly regarded as a cancer specialist, but the deliberate taking of life is a bit much for most Italians, imbued with a sense of respect for the elderly and love for life itself. Germany and Japan, mindful of their role in World War II, are also unlikely to embrace the euthanasia lobby.

On a more positive note, the United Nations several years ago designated October 1 as the "International Day of Older Persons" and the European Union is promoting 2012 as the "European Year of Active Ageing." However, in September each year Japan celebrates "Respect for the Aged Day." The commemoration is a sign of esteem for and deference to elders and it so happens that Japan is destined to have many more seniors to be feted well out into the future.