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Populations Are Aging Worldwide

This century, the world is expected to experience an unprecedented aging of the human population in countries worldwide. Analysts predict significant implications for economic growth and the well-being of societies.

Developed World Graying Fastest

Demographers predict that by mid-century, people age 65 and over will compose about 15 percent of the world’s population, up from about seven percent today. Aging populations are growing especially fast in developed countries.

“Japan has got one of the most severe cases of aging of any of the industrialized countries,” says Richard Katz, the New York based editor of The Oriental Economist Report, a monthly newsletter on Japan. “In the current year, about 20 percent of the population is over 65 and half of those people over 65 are actually over 75. And the portion of the population, which is over 65 is going to keep rising," says Mr. Katz. "It will be 23 percent by 2010, 26 percent by 2015 and almost 30 percent by 2025.”

While Japan and most of Europe have the fastest growing elderly populations, the number of people over 65 is also on the rise in the developing world. According to United Nations projections, that segment of the world’s population will triple by the end of the century.

William Butz, President of the Population Reference Bureau, a research organization here in Washington, says population aging is a result of declining fertility rates and increasing longevity. “The Chinese population is definitely aging because their numbers of birth have been relatively small now for decades. But it isn’t just China," says Mr. Butz. "The U.S., all of Western Europe, other countries with relatively low fertility rates, [such as] Thailand -- you could also include South Korea and certainly Japan –- are aging. In many parts of Africa, life expectancy is also going up.”

Demographers generally agree that population aging represents a "success story," with increasing numbers of people worldwide enjoying longer lives. For example, according to U.N. demographic projections, a child born today can expect to live, on average, until the age of 65. Half-a-century ago, life expectancy at birth was less than 50 years. However, analysts such as Richard Katz also note the sustained increase in the number of older people -- usually defined as persons over the age of 65 -- poses many challenges to their societies.

“How are you going to support the retirees? There are fewer working people to support the retirees. It has big consequences for taxes, for budgets, for living standards, how people live and economic growth, notes Mr. Katz. "So it has huge implications and they really don’t know what to do about it.”

Projections indicate that by the middle of the century, there will be more than 40, perhaps as many as 50, elderly people per one hundred workers in the United States. In 1940, there were 11 retirees per hundred working-age people. This means that fewer people had to be supported from tax revenues contributed by working people. Many analysts say that unless benefits are cut, taxes to pay for pensions and health care may have to double in the next few decades.

But Ronald Lee, a demographer at the University of California, says that in the United States, where fertility rates are at the replacement level and the work force is regularly replenished by immigrants, the problem is not as acute as in some other industrialized countries. He concedes that the cost of caring for the elderly in the U-S will increase with the rising health care costs and so some adjustments will have to be made.

“We now live longer and healthier than ever before. Why work shorter? I think the retirement age should be advanced. I think we as individuals, as a culture and as employers have to be ready to adjust pay scales so that older workers may get declining wages and salaries if their productivity declines," says Professor Lee. "Why take all that leisure at the end of life? I suggest spreading it throughout life and particularly taking more time off during the child bearing years.”

Analysts say aging populations may pose much greater challenges for developing countries where the poverty pressures already strained health care and retirement systems. Despite their rapid economic growth, China and India are still mostly poor societies. China’s current government pension system barely covers a fifth of the country’s workforce. Its 65-and-older population is likely to double in the next two decades, perhaps reaching as many as 200 million. And, most analysts say, the current pension system will not be able to support it. That means, says Professor Lee, families must start saving for retirement as early as possible.

Demographers predict a host of social and economic changes as the global population ages. Joseph Chamie, Director of Research at the Center for Migration Studies in New York, says many industries will develop new products and services aimed at the elderly.

“Of course, it will also require more people in that type of work: health care, nursing, services for the elderly and so on, says Mr. Chamie. "The entire society will start adjusting to that in terms of its consumption and its products. And you’ll see people more concerned about hair color, for example, more and more things about staying young and exercising and staying fit and diet and nutrition and clothing and household things and steps and door knobs and all sorts of things to help people as they get older to continue living productive lives.”

Demographers say they are just beginning to understand the broader social, economic and political implications of the coming "age wave." But they say, it is clear that governments as well as families and individuals should start preparing as soon as possible.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, please click here.