by Isabelle Stretton
In recent decades, a combination of declining fertility rates and increased life expectancy as a result of improved contraception, family planning and healthcare, have contributed to ageing populations around the globe. Other factors, such as migration, have further changed countries’ population age structures. Those starting a new life in the UK tend to be young, male economic migrants who contribute to the rising average age of countries like Scotland (Murphy, 2016).
Ageing populations continue to be presented as a problem for society; a burden. Whilst these claims tend not to be unsubstantiated, with many citing increasing healthcare and pension costs as the root of the problem, an ageing population can have many sociological benefits depending on the way in which the changing demographic is viewed, and whether or not opportunities are seized.
Recent studies show that an older population has the potential to reduce economic inequality. This may seem bizarre due to increasing dependency ratios associated with a higher mean age, however, an older society could result in a ‘tighter’ labour market. The World Economic Forum reported that economists have found a positive relationship between ageing and economic growth (Bunker, 2017). As populations’ age, labour supply falls compared to labour demand, increasing wages. In turn, this has the potential to make labour more productive if firms decide to invest in technology to counteract the shrinking pool of human capital. Smaller families as a result of falling fertility rates will likely mean increased investment per child which will also contribute to a more educated population and reduced economic inequality (Gotmark, Cafaro and O’Sullivan, 2019).
Whilst there will be fewer workers overall, people around the world are retiring later. Many industries are reliant on older workers, particularly agriculture and health and social care; 47.5% of agricultural workers in the UK are over 50 (Hochlaf and Franklin, 2017). Communities are benefiting from older generations’ increased social contribution too, particularly in developing countries where grandparents look after grandchildren, allowing parents to increase their working hours. More than a quarter of Indian and Taiwanese adults in their 60s and 70s ‘regularly helped in the wider community’ (Harper, 2019). According to the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing, the value of volunteering by those aged 65 years and over in the UK will be worth more than £15 billion in 2020, a fifty per cent rise since 2010 (Rawstrone, 2014). The baby boomer generation is still retiring, continuing an increase in voluntary contributions to local communities.
With ever-increasing concerns about the welfare of our planet, it is a relief that ageing populations should help curb environmental damage (Bazilchuk, 2018). Pensioners, tending to be less economically active than the working age population, are thought to contribute far less to energy consumption and waste than the younger generations. Lower CO2 emissions from less frequent transport use and reduced material demand at an older age will improve air quality. Smaller families will provide the societal benefit of reducing crowding in busy areas. Studies imply that an ageing population contributes towards reduced levels of crime: ‘a significant proportion of US national crime trends over time can be explained by fluctuations in the proportion of the population in the crime-prone age group of 15 to 24-year-olds’ (Steffensmeier and Harer, 1987, 1999, cited in Ulmer, J. and Steffensmeier, D., 2014). A fall in the crime-prone age group is associated with a safer society.
An ageing population can provide positive opportunities to increase the sense of community amongst inhabitants of cities and create more accessible living spaces whose benefits reach further than the elderly demographic. ‘Age-friendly’ cities and communities are concepts pushed by the World Health Organisation with the aim of adapting structures and services to allow the older generation to remain a valued and connected part of the community. In Manchester, the ‘Take a Seat’ campaign urges local shops and other community spaces to provide seats for the elderly, making areas of the city more accessible. Akita, a city in Japan, has implemented a one-coin bus service that has reduced the price of travel, increasing the independence of the elderly and in turn reducing loneliness (Age-Friendly World, n.d.).
Ageing populations have many benefits that we can actively choose to take into account. By viewing the elderly as an asset to society and taking time to rethink the way in which our societies function, the stigma surrounding old age can be mitigated which in turn will have a positive impact on communities economically, environmentally and socially.
Age-Friendly World. (n.d.). Developing age-friendly cities and communities: Case studies from around the world – Age-Friendly World. [online] [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].
Bazilchuk, N. (2018). An ageing population is good for us and the planet. [online] sciencenordic.com. Available at: http://sciencenordic.com/ageing-population-good-us-and-planet [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].
Bunker, N. (2017). An ageing population could be good for the economy. Here’s why. [online] World Economic Forum. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/why-an-ageing-population-might-be-good-news-for-the-economy [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].
Gotmark, F., Cafaro, P. and O’Sullivan, J. (2018). Aging Human Populations: Good for Us, Good for the Earth. [pdf] Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534718302088?via%3Dihub#sec0015 [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].
Harper, S. (2019). The positive impacts of an ageing population | Age International. [online] Ageinternational.org.uk. Available at: https://www.ageinternational.org.uk/policy-research/expert-voices/the-positive-impacts-of-an-ageing-population/ [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].
Hochlaf, D. and Franklin, B. (2017). When I’m 64 – The ILC-UK factpack on retirement transitions. [pdf] Available at: https://ilcuk.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/When-Im-64-ILC-UK-Factpack-2017.pdf [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].
Murphy, M. (2016). The effect of long-term migration dynamics on population structure in England & Wales and Scotland: Population Studies: Vol 70, No 2. [online] Tandfonline.com. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00324728.2016.1185140?needAccess=true [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].
Rawstrone, A. (2014). Volunteering by older people ‘will be worth more than £15bn by 2020’. [online] Thirdsector.co.uk. Available at: https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/volunteering-older-people-will-worth-15bn-2020/volunteering/article/1288192 [Accessed 3 Apr. 2019].
Ulmer, J & Steffensmeier, D 2014, ‘The age and crime relationship: social variation, social explanations’, in Beaver, KM, Barnes, J & Boutwell, BB (eds), The nurture versus biosocial debate in criminology: on the origins of criminal behavior and criminality, SAGE Publications Ltd, London, pp. 377-396[Accessed 3 Apr. 2019], doi: 10.4135/9781483349114.n24.