The World Ages, Gracefully

UN Chronicle, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The World Ages, Gracefully


Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 2

Increased longevity is one of the striking developments of the century; it has grown more in the last 100 years than in the prior 5,000 since the Bronze Age. But it's easy to misconstrue. What's new is not the number of years people live; it's the number of people who live them. Science hasn't lengthened life, says Dr. Robert Butler, a pioneering authority on ageing. It has enabled many more people to reach very old age. And at this moment in history, even to say "many more people" is an understatement. The baby boom generation is about to turn into an age boom.

- Jack Rosenthal, Editor New York Times Magazine, 9 March 1997

The United Nations General Assembly's decision to observe the year 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons is "in recognition of humanity's demographic coming of age and the promise it holds for maturing attitudes and capabilities in social, economic, cultural and spiritual undertakings, not least for global peace and development in the next century".

Between the years 1950 and 2000, the decline of fertility and mortality will have added 20 years to the average life. But together with declining fertility - the main factor in the ageing of the world population-longevity is also producing unprecedented challenges to citizens and policy makers, for instance, the protection of the economic and social security of older persons.

This demographic transition has skyrocketed the proportion of older persons - those aged 60 years and above - within a few generations, from approximately 1 person in 14 to 1 in 4. In countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), moreover, it is expected that by the year 2030 this proportion will have reached a ratio of 1 person in 3. The median age of the world population will have jumped from 23.4 years in 1950 to 31.1 years in 2050.

* Although the proportion of older people is highest in OECD countries and in countries with economies in transition, the major growth of the world's older population - from half a billion people in 1990 to almost 1.5 billion in 2050 - will be in developing countries, particularly in Asia.

* Already by 2025, 72 per cent of the world's older persons - about 858 million people - will be living in developing countries.

* Further, it is projected that by 2030, more than three quarters of the world's old people will live in industrial regions - more than half in Asia and more than a quarter in China alone.

* Today, the population aged 60 years and older is estimated at nearly 1 person in 10 worldwide, with a gender ratio of 302 million women to 247 million men. According to a recent World Bank study, 1 elderly person in 4 is over 75 years of age, and two thirds of this category are women. Sixty-one per cent of the world's women over the age of 80 live in developed regions. But by 2025, the majority will live in developing regions. Today, 44 per cent of all older women live in Asia, 6 per cent in Africa and 7 per cent in Latin America, with the remaining 43 per cent in the developed regions.

Since the demographic transition is proceeding more rapidly in developing regions, partly due to faster fertility decline, these countries will be particularly challenged to develop policies for the ageing population to ensure income, housing and health care, as well as the participation and independence of older persons.

The situation of older women

* Worldwide, women are living longer than men. The largest differences are found in Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and Central Asia. In the Russian Federation, the difference in favour of women is 12 years. …

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