The ageing world

Posted: 26 January 2008

"One in 10 persons is over the age of sixty. By 2050, this proportion will have doubled to one in five."

Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary GeneralHuman progress in the last century has led to a gradual ageing of the human population. The world's people have never been this healthy or lived this long - and, with some local and regional setbacks, the process looks set to continue. Lower infant and child mortality, better nutrition, education, housing, health care and access to family planning have led to people living longer in nearly all parts of the world.

elderly lady© TVE

  • In 1950, average global life expectancy was 46 years; in 2005, it was over 66; and by 2050, it is expected to have increased to over 75 years. This, despite recent severe falls in life expectancy in parts of Africa, due to AIDS, and in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet system.

  • With the continuation of fertility decline and increase in life expectancy, the population of the world will age much faster in the next half-century than previously.

  • In 2000, the population aged 60 years or over numbered 600 million, triple the number present in 1950. In 2006, the number of older persons had surpassed 700 million. By 2050, over 2 billion older persons are projected to be alive, implying that their number will once again triple over a span of 50 years.

  • The world average median age in 2005 was 28 years. By 2050 it is expected to be 38 (that is, half the world's population will be over this age). The most rapidly ageing group is those over 80, expected to rise to five times that by mid-century.

  • Globally the population of older persons is growing at a rate of 2.6 per cent per year, considerably faster than the population as a whole which is increasing at 1.1 per cent annually.
Population over 60, 1950-2050
Population over 60, 1950-2050
The proportion of the population aged over 60 will double by mid-century. Source: UN. Click on image for ful-size graphic.
  • While in France it took more than a century for the proportion of the population over the age of 65 to grow from 7 per cent in 1865 to 14 per cent in 1980, in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, China and Brazil it would take only about one generation.

  • Overall, there are still three times as many children in the world (30 per cent) as older persons (10 per cent). However, in the more developed regions, the number of older persons exceeded that of children for the first time in 1998. By the year 2050, there are likely to be more than twice as many older persons as there are children in the developed world.

  • Marked differences exist between developed and developing regions in the number and proportion of older persons. In the more developed regions, over a fifth of the population is currently aged 60 years or over and by 2050, nearly a third of the population in developed countries is projected to be in that age group.

  • In the less developed regions, older persons account today for just 8 per cent of the population but by 2050 they are expected to account for a fifth of the population, implying that, by mid-century, the developing world is likely to reach the same stage in the process of population ageing that the developed world is already at.

  • At the world level, the number of older persons is expected to exceed the number of children for the first time in 2047. In the more developed regions, where population ageing is far advanced, the number of children dropped below that of older persons in 1998.

Regional contrasts

  • Europe is, and is projected to remain, the major area of the world most affected by ageing. The proportion of children is projected to decline from 17 per cent in 2000 to 15 per cent in 2050, while the proportion of older persons will increase from 20 per cent in 2000 to 35 per cent in 2050.

  • The oldest country in the world today is Japan, with a median age of 42.9, closely followed by Italy, Germany, Finland and Switzerland.

  • Africa remains the major area with the youngest population. However, the proportion of children there is expected to decline from 43 per cent in 2000 to 28 per cent in 2050, and the proportion of older persons will likely double from 5 per cent to 10 per cent over the next 50 years.
The ageing challenge

  • Population ageing is a growing challenge throughout the world. Less developed countries face the greatest difficulty. Most of these countries are not able to meet the financial, health, and housing needs of older people. Traditional support systems for the elderly are deteriorating in many areas just as the need for support is growing. Widespread declines in child-bearing rates mean there are fewer children to care for elderly parents.

  • The potential support ratio (PSR), that is, the number of persons aged 15 to 64 per each older person aged 65 years or over, indicates how many potential workers there are per older person. As a population ages, the value of the potential support ratio tends to fall. Between 1950 and 2007, the potential support ratio declined from 12 to 9 potential workers per person aged 65 or over. By 2050, the potential support ratio is projected to drop further to reach 4 potential workers per older person.

  • Even in wealthy nations, an ageing population strains financial and public resources. They too must find ways to provide health care and financial support for growing numbers of elderly people. National insurance schemes need to be adjusted as the dependency ratio between the working and dependent segments of the population change. The health and financial needs of the elderly sometimes conflict with the needs of children. National governments will face difficult decisions about how to spend public funds so that neither group benefits at the expense of the other.
The very old

  • In 2007, 94 million persons in the world were aged 80 or over (the oldest old) and they were the fastest growing segment of the population. By 2050 they will have increased to over 400 million.

  • The most important increase in absolute terms will occur in Asia, where the population of people over 80 is expected to exceed 238 million.

  • The number of centenarians is projected to reach 3.3 million. The largest centenarian populations in 2050 will be in Japan (1,016,000), the United States of America (471,000), China (459,000), India (131,000), France (123,000) and Germany (114,000).