The world is aging… rapidly. And it’s not just happening in the highly developed countries, the populations of emerging nations are also growing older fast. According to the United Nations, population aged 60 and over is growing faster than all younger age groups. Partly we’re living longer. Women the world over are also having fewer babies. On the flip side, we’re not always healthier. Obesity, dementia, and other non-communicable diseases are also rising worldwide. Even with the drop in the number of births, total world population is predicted to remain steady through the next century. What might this mean socially and economically in the coming years?
In the 2017 revision of its “World Population Prospects,” the United Nations notes that the world population continues to add about 83 million persons each year. That means there will be an additional 1 billion people on the planet by 2030 and another 1.2 billion on top of that by 2050. Meanwhile, there were almost 1 billion people in the world over age 60 in the world in 2017 or 13% of the global population. By 2050, 25% of the population in all regions of the world except Africa will be over the age of 60. In the United States, the over-65 population will have doubled by that time. Numbers of persons over 80, considered “the very old” by researchers, are predicted to grow even faster, tripling by mid century.
How did we get here? Women across the world are having fewer babies. Even Africa, famous for its high birthrates, has seen a decline in the number of births. In 2015, 83 countries or 46% of the global population fell below replacement levels (about 2.1 births per woman). Fewer deaths for children under 5 and reductions in deaths from HIV/AIDS and other diseases has helped push up global life expectancy, with Africa having some of the biggest gains. The life expectancy gap between rich and poor countries is also narrowing.
Living longer isn’t a bad thing but it does present challenges. As National Institute on Aging‘s director, Richard Hodes, notes, “People are living longer, but that does not necessarily mean that they are living healthier.” One-third of the world is already obese and many more are overweight. Global rates of dementia are on the rise as well, especially in poorer countries. Then there’s loneliness, which comes with its own health problems especially for those over 80. But even the healthiest of us will require more help and care as we age. That will mean rising demand for long-term care and for age-friendly environments. Social safety networks and government programs will have to adapt too.
Looks pretty bleak, but probably not the doom and gloom scenario that our youth-obsessed culture might make it out to be. There will be costs, but also significant social and economic benefits. People will work longer and that will help to recapture productivity that might have been lost. The need for healthy-aging solutions will lead to new advances in medicine, nursing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and many other fields. And, unless something changes dramatically, this is where we’re headed. Maybe our golden years will become a new golden age.