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What does global aging mean for development?

October 13, 2010
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Following on last week’s post on obesity, here’s another trend that’s rarely talked about (at least in development circles, with the honourable exception of Helpage International) – global aging. c/o Phillip Longman in Foreign Policy magazine.

“The global growth rate dropped from 2 percent in the mid-1960s to roughly half that today, with many countries no longer producing enough babies to avoid falling populations. Having too many people on the planet is no longer demographers’ chief worry; now, having too few is.

It’s true that the world’s population overall will increase by roughly one-third over the next 40 years, from 6.9 to 9.1 billion, according global aging 1to the U.N. Population Division. But this will be a very different kind of population growth than ever before — driven not by birth rates, which have plummeted around the world, but primarily by an increase in the number of elderly people. Indeed, the global population of children under 5 is expected to fall by 49 million as of mid-century, while the number of people over 60 will grow by 1.2 billion.

Today we see that birth rates are dipping below replacement levels even in countries hardly known for luxury. Emerging first in Scandinavia in the 1970s, what the experts call “subreplacement fertility” quickly spread to the rest of Europe, Russia, most of Asia, much of South America, the Caribbean, Southern India, and even Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon, Morocco, and Iran. Of the 59 countries now producing fewer children than needed to sustain their populations, 18 are characterized by the United Nations as “developing,” i.e., not rich.

Indeed, most developing countries are experiencing population aging at unprecedented rates. Consider Iran. As recently as the late 1970s, the average Iranian woman had nearly seven children. Today, for reasons not well understood, she has just 1.74, far below the average 2.1 children needed to sustain a population over time. Accordingly, between 2010 and 2050, the share of Iran’s population 60 and older is expected to increase from 7.1 to 28.1 percent. This is well above the share of 60-plus people found in Western Europe today and about the same percentage that is expected for most Northern European countries in 2050. But unlike Western Europe, Iran and many other developing regions experiencing the same hyper-aging — from Cuba to Croatia, Lebanon to the Wallis and Futuna Islands — will not necessarily have a chance to get rich before they get old.

One contributing factor is urbanization; more than half the world’s population now lives in cities, where children are an expensive economic liability, not another pair of hands to till fields or care for livestock. Two other oft-cited reasons are expanded work opportunities for women and the increasing prevalence of pensions and other old-age financial support that doesn’t depend on having large numbers of children to finance retirement.

global aging 3Surprisingly, this graying of the world is not by any means the exclusive result of programs deliberately aimed at population control. For though there are countries such as India, which embraced population control even to the point of forced sterilization programs during the 1970s and saw dramatic reduction in birth rates, there are also counterexamples such as Brazil, where the government never promoted family planning and yet its birth rate went down even more. Why? In both countries and elsewhere, changing cultural norms appear to be the primary force driving down birth rates — think TV, not government decrees. In Brazil, television was introduced sequentially province by province, and in each new region the boob tube reached, birth rates plummeted soon after. (Discuss among yourselves whether this was because of what’s on Brazilian television — mostly soap operas depicting rich people living the high life — or simply because a television was now on at night in many more bedrooms.)

Those who predict a coming Asian Century have not come to terms with the region’s approaching era of hyper-aging. Japan, whose “lost decade” began just as its labor force started to shrink in the late 1980s, now appears to be not an exception, but a vanguard of Asian demographics. South Korea and Taiwan, with some of the lowest birth rates of any major country, will be losing population within 15 years. Singapore’s government is so worried about its birth dearth that it not only offers new mothers a “baby bonus” of up to about $3,000 each for the first or second child and about $4,500 for a third or fourth child, paid maternity leave, and other enticements to have children, it has even started sponsoring speed-dating events.

China, for now, continues to enjoy the economic benefits associated with the early phase of birth-rate decline, when a society has fewer global aging 4children to support and more available female labor for the workforce. But with its stringent one-child policy and exceptionally low birth rate, China is rapidly evolving into what demographers call a “4-2-1″ society, in which one child becomes responsible for supporting two parents and four grandparents.”

The pics are taken from the rather nice accompanying photo essay

There’s a striking pattern here. Whether it’s aging, obesity, falling fertility and mortality rates or improving literacy, the transitions (both good and bad) that a country typically goes through as it develops are happening at lower and lower levels of GDP per capita, raising new development challenges (e.g. aging without pensions, obesity coinciding with hunger).

And what does aging mean for policy? Off the top of my head, it should shift us away from just thinking about jobs and growth to broader aspects of well-being that are more relevant to older people, such as social and pensions; a more welcoming attitude to immigration in population deficit countries; working with and supporting self organization by older people (who are often more politically active anyway). And it may even help out in tackling climate change. But I’m sure Helpage and others will have lots of things to add ……


  1. Great that you are mentioning ageing and HelpAge, thanks!

    The issue of ageing is so overlooked in development, it’s almost impossible to know where to start the discussion!

    Talking about it is definitely a good start though.

    I would say that although the 4-2-1 rule may be applied in China, in many countries in Africa, Central Asia and Latin America, etc… we find the opposite happening.

    Middle genarations have been lost to HIV and AIDS or have migrated to find work or escape conflict. This leaves older people caring for and supporting their grandchildren.

    That’s why ‘investing’ in older people through pensions and better healthcare is actually a way of ensuring younger generations are also supported, cared for and educated. In a kind of two birds, one stone way.

    Obviously the issue is a lot more complicated than that, and I’m no policy buff. But it sure is nice to write about the issues older people are facing everywhere and think that someone might actually read this!

    Sarah (from HelpAge)

  2. “By 2050 the older will out number the younger in the first time in the world’s history”? Perhaps the triumph of Malthusianism is result of this prediction, but it is very, very agonisingly exagerrating to focus solely on a single phenomenon of a ‘graying’ population.

    Can anybody realise that the failure to discuss properly about the role of reproductive choice among women around the world?

    Anyone should pay attention to this and the like which can influence the issue of how to stabilise the world’s population in the future.

    Be aware, though, that growth skepticism comes from some people who are ignorant of the limits of environmentalism and other sorts of a philosopical and ideological phenomenon have on people’s minds currently.

    Some of them even ignore the real issues pertaining to the skepticism (and misunderstanding) over the future of world economic growth and social change.

    It is better to be careful of what needs to be done to encourage and strenghten women’s reproductive rights and family planning in different countries around the globe during a series of meaningful discussions.

    Thank you.

  3. An interesting post.

    In the book “How Bad Are Bananas – the carbon cost of everything” Mike Berners-Lee writes that if temperatures rise at a rate that the scientists say is quite possible, by the year 2100 the world will only be able to support several billion less people than it currently does(sorry – I haven’t got the details to hand). Shrinking populations through personal choice seems to me to be the best way to get to a smaller sustainable population, despite the issues that Duncan covers. The alternatives offered are war, famine and disease.

  4. First of all, thank you for giving ageing and older people space on this post! That’s great!!!

    I have posted a comment on Phillip Longman’s article, mainly referring to paragraphs that aren’t shown in this blog, but I anyway thought it would be worth sharing them with you.

    1) Are older people really a burden? – Where does this article mention older people’s contributions? Just think about the amount of informal care work done by older people, especially as mentioned in earlier comments (Sarah) in environments that are faced with the HIV/AIDS pandemic. On you will find various examples of older people that make a change and are huge assets to their families and whole societies.

    2) Does getting older necessarily mean to get technologically illiterate? – Just take a look at The Grayest Generation Photos of a world going gray in the same issue of Foreign Policy and you will notice that there are other examples, e.g. Japanese older people experiencing new technologies such as iPads. Maybe this is just about implementing new policies and adapting the work environment. Various psychological studies have shown that the decline everybody associates with ageing does not necessarily happen in all parts of our body. What for instance about experiences accumulated over a lifetime?

    3) Does an older population lead to economic downturn because there are “fewer young adults [… and thus] fewer people needing to purchase new homes, new furniture…”? – Just type “Silver Economy” into Google and you will see business opportunities resulting from population ageing and ageing societies.

  5. Women’s reproductive choices should be a priority in the mindsets of ordinary people like me because it is very important even when the world’s population is likely to start graying in the not-too-distant future.

    Perhaps it is time for women to make choices on whether to raise children (especially a few of them, I think) or not, and it helps.

    Also, help the elderly in adapting to the work environments and living standards because they need it – and it is worth the patience to do what it can to make a big difference their lives.

    Remember, do not forget it to take a stand for these priorities! Thank you.

  6. Correction: It should be stated that it is worth the patience to do what it can to make a big difference in the lives of the elderly people around the world.

    Thanks again.

  7. Great to see older people finally given a mention! Thanks!

    I agree that thinking about jobs and growth should move to broader aspects of well-being but it should not lose those linkages to jobs and growth. Instead employment policy should address issues of skills adaptation and flexibility for older people who are working in later life. Work is so closely tied to people’s daily lives, that even those older people who are in a position to stop work, often want to continue to remain active and involved in community life in a contributing and productive role.

    Supporting self organization by older people is one way that they could be supported to adapt their work in later life. Trade unions and informal worker assocations must also start paying attention to global ageing and the specific needs and contributions of older workers.

  8. This is a fascinating post—even if only to readers like myself who clearly qualify as aging! (I’m fifty-nine and not getting any younger.) Perhaps in rich countries where health improvements in older people stand a chance of keeping pace with declining birth rates, necessity will be the mother of inventions which succeed at keeping people in the work force longer; maybe the key invention would be an attitude that can discern the willingness and capacity to work of older people and that no longer asserts their irrelevance to the need for flexibility and innovation.

    But if one can assume a reasonably faithful correlation between the measure of a country’s poverty and the measure of that country’s physical rigors, then we will have a harder time addressing falling birth rates in developing countries by keeping people in the work force longer. For example, I do development work in rural Tanzania, where I see forthcoming few if any information-intensive jobs of the kind for which the accumulated knowledge of older people equips them. Instead I see a Rift Valley escarpment that year by year grows no less steep and, in a sprawling village without a single car, unpaved roads that get no smoother. Life in this village imposes stern physical demands on all residents.

    Meanwhile the census figures collected by our Village Executive Officer show a birth rate in sharp decline over the last several years. As Mr. Green’s post suggests, that’s not an unqualified good for everyone.

  9. Correction: I would like to add that “many people around the world like me have to look more closely at ways to bring women’s reproductive choices, that will come out very soon, into the forefront of a balanced public discussion and a well-coordinated series of awareness campaigns”.

    Thank you very much.

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