Old… but still gold!
by Christie Lawrence
The words ‘ageing population’ seem to have been growing in popularity in recent years, with article after article deeming certain countries to be ‘demographic time-bombs’. However, it is not always made clear what ‘ageing population’ necessarily means. An ageing population can be defined as the change in the age structure of the population within a country, characterised by a rising average age and a growing number of people living beyond the standard working ages. This is principally the result of rising life expectancy (caused by numerous factors like improved healthcare, better living conditions and lowered infant mortality) and declining birth-rates (caused by heightened ‘child centred-ness’ whereby parents choose quality over quantity, improved career opportunities for women and urbanisation causing less of a need for children to labour on farms). Demographic research initially suggested that in the 150 years following the beginning of the 19th century ageing populations were a phenomena confined solely to more developed parts of the world (such as Europe, North America, Oceania, Japan and parts of South America) who, due to inequalities in healthcare, had a life expectancy double that of their poorer counterparts. People in Norway, for instance, had a life expectancy of 72 years, compared to Mali’s 26. Since the 1950s however, the issue of ‘ageing populations’ has increased in magnitude. According to ‘Our World in Data’ most people in the world today can expect to live as long as those in the richest countries of the 1950s. Today’s global average life expectancy of 71 years is higher than that of any country in 1950. Ageing populations are no longer solely an issue of the developed world, but a global one.
As the number of ageing populations increases, so does its media coverage. Such coverage is seldom positive, describing only the negative implications of ageing populations upon society. For instance, a quick web search of ‘ageing population’ in Google’s ‘news’ section immediately reveals headlines such as: ‘Demographic time-bomb: Finland sends warning to Europe‘ (Financial Times, April 3rd 2019), ‘Ageing Population costs to exceed Medicare’ (Daily Mail March 31st 2019), ‘Ageing Britons more likely to be impoverished and unwell , Says Report’. Headlines such as these portray the most obvious problems that social scientists say ageing populations pose. The increased number of elderly and the high level of care they require, for example, place a strain on health and social services who, without an abundance of young workers and a lack of funding, simply cannot meet these new demands. The BBC released a report containing 10 charts thought to depict why the NHS is failing, listing population ageing as one of these reasons. They report that ‘the average 65-year-old costs the NHS 2.5 times more than the average 30-year-old. An 85-year-old costs more than five times as much.’ squarely pointing the finger at our growing elderly population.
Moreover, an increase in the elderly, and a fall in birth-rates means that the younger generations will have to work for a greater portion of their lives, for there are fewer young people in the reserve of workers, to replace them after retirement. In the UK today alone there are more people aged 60+ than there are under 18, a contrast which is predicted to grow ever more stark, with some social scientists predicting that within the next five years, 1 in 4 people within the UK will be aged 60+, effecting a great number of social institutions. Nicholas Eberstadt for instance, argues within his case study of Japan’s ageing population, that 400 schools are closed down each year due to the shortage of young people to attend them.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom! Contrary to what the mainstream media would have you believe, there are, refreshingly, numerous benefits to ageing populations. The elderly contribute far more to society than the media give them credit for as institutions such as ‘ageinternational.org’ and ‘Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing’ attempt to prove. The elderly make valuable contributions to society through free childcare and voluntary work (estimated to be worth over £15bn by 2020). The elderly additionally create an entirely new market with their particular needs and the added advantage of ‘the grey pound’ ( a term referring to the purchasing power of elderly people as consumers, due their increased levels of disposable income), this boosts the economy simultaneously to giving certain countries a head-start in technological advancements for the elderly.
As a young person writing this post, I also feel like ageing populations are advantageous to my own inevitable ageing. With the structural changes occurring within societies with an ageing population and the aforementioned technological advancements they produce, I feel like now is one of the best times in history to grow old happily and comfortably. What’s wrong with having your loved ones around a little longer? What’s so bad about having a little longer to achieve your life’s dreams and explore this beautiful earth of ours? Although ageing populations come with their own set of problems, we should see this as a tremendous opportunity! An opportunity to be challenged and an opportunity to make the most of our own, longer lives.