Why Population Aging Matters: A Global Perspective

Overview: Our Aging World

We are aging—not just as individuals or communities but as a world. In 2006, almost 500 million people worldwide were 65 and older. By 2030, that total is projected to increase to 1 billion—1 in every 8 of the earth’s inhabitants. Significantly, the most rapid increases in the 65-and-older population are occurring in developing countries, which will see a jump of 140 percent by 2030.

A Host of Challenges

While global aging represents a triumph of medical, social, and economic advances over disease, it also presents tremendous challenges. Population aging strains social insurance and pension systems and challenges existing models of social support. It affects economic growth, trade, migration, disease patterns and prevalence, and fundamental assumptions about growing older.

Using data from the United Nations, U.S. Census Bureau, and Statistical Office of the European Communities as well as regional surveys and scientific journals, the U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA), with input from demographers, economists, and experts on aging, identified nine emerging trends in global aging. Together, these trends present a snapshot of challenges and opportunities that clearly show why population aging matters.

  • The overall population is aging. For the first time in history, and probably for the rest of human history, people age 65 and over will outnumber children under age 5.
  • Life expectancy is increasing. Most countries, including developing countries, show a steady increase in longevity over time, which raises the question of how much further life expectancy will increase.
  • The number of oldest old is rising. People age 85 and over are now the fastest growing portion of many national populations.
  • Noncommunicable diseases are becoming a growing burden. Chronic noncommunicable diseases are now the major cause of death among older people in both more developed and less developed countries.
  • Some populations will shrink in the next few decades. While world population is aging at an unprecedented rate, the total population in some countries is simultaneously declining.
  • Family structures are changing. As people live longer and have fewer children, family structures are transformed, leaving older people with fewer options for care.
  • Patterns of work and retirement are shifting. Shrinking ratios of workers to pensioners and people spending a larger portion of their lives in retirement increasingly strain existing health and pension systems.
  • Social insurance systems are evolving. As social insurance expenditures escalate, an increasing number of countries are evaluating the sustainability of these systems.
  • New economic challenges are emerging. Population aging will have dramatic effects on social entitlement programs, labor supply, trade, and savings around the globe and may demand new fiscal approaches to accommodate a changing world.

A Window of Opportunity

Some governments have begun to plan for the long term, but most have not. The window of opportunity for reform is closing fast as the pace of population aging accelerates. While Europe currently has four people of working age for every older person, it will have only two workers per older person by 2050. In some countries the share of gross domestic product devoted to social insurance for older people is expected to more than double in upcoming years. Countries therefore have only a few years to intensify efforts before demographic effects come to bear.

The challenges may seem daunting, but a host of opportunities await us as well. For instance, countries that have begun to address issues of population aging can share their experiences. There are exciting opportunities for economic expansion and cross-national collaboration as well, but we must act now or the costs of waiting—financial and social—will be overwhelming.

Publication Date: September 2011
Page Last Updated: March 24, 2014