Ageing - 7 myths

The average age of the population is increasing – people are living longer. Also, women are having fewer children. But is this greying of nations really a ‘crisis’?

1 ‘It’s a rich world issue’
There are around 530 million people in the world aged over 65. More than 60 per cent live in the global South.1 By mid-century this is likely to be 80 per cent. Globally the median age – an indicator of population ageing – is projected to increase from 29 to 38 years between 2009 and 2050. Europe today has the oldest population, with a median age of nearly 40 years. By mid-century 43 developing countries will also have median ages higher than 40.2

2 ‘It’s catastrophic’
People today are generally healthier and living longer. In 1950 life expectancy in developing countries was just 50 years for men, 53 for women. In 2010 they are expected to hit 69 and 76 years, respectively.1 ‘Catastrophe’ suggests a sudden event; but the greying of nations is gradual. It will be faster in countries where the fertility decline has been very rapid but there is at least time to plan. Furthermore, the ‘ageing bulge’ – the result of baby boomers approaching retirement – will not last forever. They will die and there are fewer people in the next generation.

3 ‘It burdens younger people’
A 2005 report covering 30 relatively wealthy nations projects that by 2050, ten ‘active’ workers will be ‘supporting’ more than seven older ‘inactive people’ compared with just four in 2000.3 This supposes that anyone aged over 64 is economically ‘dependent’ on younger people. Closer studies show this is far from being true. Often the financial ‘intergenerational transfers’, go the other way, from older to younger family members. In Australia, older people do not become net receivers of private transfers of either care or money until over the age of 75. In the words of population expert Jill Curnow: ‘The elderly take their time becoming a burden to their children!’3 This is also true of traditional societies, researchers working in indigenous communities in South America have discovered.

4 ‘It will empty the pension pot’
Pensions are in a mess. But the blame does not lie with ‘too many old people’ but with privatization of pensions and the adoption of a neoliberal model that encouraged the financial sector – including pension fund managers – to gamble with the future security of citizens.4 Corruption also plays its part. In Mexico, for example, few pensioners entitled to state benefits actually receive them.

5 ‘It will impoverish nations’
Who is counting the value of voluntary work, unpaid childcare or other contributions of older people? If these were realistically measured a very different picture of a national economy would emerge. Older people tend to consume less stuff and buy more services. The care services they may require create employment. In many countries, however, old people are living in poverty and are not getting a fair share of the wealth that they helped create. Governments might take a leaf out of the book of President Evo Morales in Bolivia, who funds a universal old age pension from a portion of the profits from the country’s oil and gas. 

6 ‘It hugely increases health costs’
A study analyzing health costs in economically advanced nations found that age didn’t determine such costs significantly.3 An older person with a healthy lifestyle is likely to make fewer demands on public health than an unfit middle-aged one. The last two years of life are the most intensely costly but that can apply to anyone. Chronic health problems do increase with age but the future time-bombs are diseases associated unhealthy lifestyles rather than old age. A stronger link exists between poverty and ill health. Alleviating poverty and improving preventative healthcare, regardless of age, might be more useful than fretting about ageing.1

7 ‘Older people will just have to work longer’
Allowing people to retire gradually or work beyond retirement age has clear benefits for both the individual and society. But in countries where employment is in short supply, forcing old people to work longer before they can draw a state pension does not make sense.

The ageing of population presents specific challenges, especially in the Global South, where poverty and lack of welfare provision are serious issues and where traditional extended family networks have been eroded. But the ‘old age bulge’ is not in itself a problem. Poverty is. Inequality is. The panic over ‘too many old people’ smacks of ageism. In the grand scale of things, there may be more urgent things to worry about than the population ageing, slowly, predictably, over time.

  1. Roberto Ham-Chande et al, Ageing in Developing Countries: Building Bridges for Integrated Research Agendas, IUSSP Policy and Research Papers, 2009.
  2. World Population Prospects: the 2008 Revision, The UN Population Division, 2009.
  3. Jill Curnow, ‘Myths and the Fear of an Ageing Population’, AESP Occasional Paper, October 2000, 
  4. Sarah Sexton, ‘Too Many Grannies? The politics of Population Aging’, Different Takes, The Publication of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, No 42, Fall 2006.