Global ageing: From pyramid to beehive in 100 years

Age International published a wide-ranging report on global ageing earlier this month. It emphasises something I’ve been banging on about for a while. Population ageing isn’t just a western phenomenon. It’s happening throughout the world.

Contrary to popular belief, the rise in the population aged 80 and over is taking place at a faster rate in less developed countries than in more developed countries.

The population of some developing countries is ageing at a fascinating rate. By the middle of the century, many places we still think of as young countries will have a greater proportion of their population aged over 60 than Britain has now.

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This turbo greying will see some countries overtake the developed regions, ending up with a greater proportion of their population over 60 than in North America and Europe. As these graphics from Pew Research and the ILO show, many developing countries are ageing at much faster rate than the richer economies.

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As Age International says, this is happening because a lot of the things the human race has been doing over the last 5o years have worked. Aid agencies have been persuading poor people to have fewer children while helping more of them to live longer. And that’s what’s happened. Falling birth rates have contributed to global ageing but much of it has come about simply because fewer people are dying. As this chart shows, first we helped more children to survive into their teens, then we helped more adults to live longer. Result; adults and then older people make up an increasing proportion of the population.

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In some countries, though, economic migration is speeding up the ageing process by removing the working age adults and leaving hollowed out societies:

A major pull factor of international migration is the ageing of workforces in the rich world; at the same time migration from poor communities leaves behind disproportionate numbers of the old, and the young. From Latin America to Asia, migration is changing the age profile of many relatively ‘young’ countries, leaving ‘skipped-generation’ households of older people caring for grandchildren left by middle-generation migrants. With remittances infrequent, inadequate or non-existent, old and young in these households are sharing the burden of poverty and vulnerability.

This is the flip side of western countries’ child-catching policies. As we make up for the ageing of our populations by importing young people from elsewhere, we effectively export some of our rising dependency ratio to countries less able to cope with the results.

For most of human history, the age profile looked like a pyramid, with a lot of young people and fewer and fewer making it to each age cohort. At the top were a tiny number of old people. But by 2047, for the first time, there will be more people aged over 60 than children under 16. The age profile will look more like a beehive.

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From pyramid to beehive in just 100 years. That’s a global social transformation taking place with astonishing speed. We have, as yet, no idea what the consequences of this will be.

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3 Responses to Global ageing: From pyramid to beehive in 100 years

  1. Bernie Samson says:

    All fascinating stuff.

    I’m 35 and I can’t remember a time in my political consciousness when “dealing with the consequences of an aging society” didn’t from time to time pop up in the press as something important. There have been times during that 15 to 20 year period when it has been discussed a lot. In retrospect, though, it seems that successive governments have done f-all by way of redesigning the state to help us cope with it. I can barely think of any policies that have been discussed and ditched. It’s as if we’ve shut our collective eyes and pretended that the problem isn’t there, while merrily running toward it.

    What have we done? Raised the pension age a bit, probably a decade later than we should have done. We’ve tinkered a bit with the state pension recently. Meanwhile we’ve generally cut income tax rates while significantly raising NI rates and VAT, subtly shifting the tax burden further toward the young, working population who spend more consistently.

    I’m already resigned to being ineligible for a state pension and having to pay at least something towards my healthcare at the point of use. I give it 15 years at the most for both of those things to be at least means tested.

    As an aside, I can’t help but feel that the arrival of UKIP on the scene has let the major parties and the electorate off the hook for this collective myopia. So much easier to blame a large benefits bill and stretched/underfunded public services on foreigners than it is to recognise that much of the difficulties derive from us failing to realise that a successful welfare state means we (nearly) all get old.

  2. ChrisA says:

    It’s funny that at the same time people are worrying about the aging of society, they are also worrying about the loss of jobs due to the forthcoming robot revolution. Hopefully the second will be the answer to the first.

    But more seriously – we have a society that is already pretty advanced in this regard – Japan. It works well enough, a pretty nice place actually. Using them as a standard, the world is likely to do OK.

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