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Growing Towards a Demographic Disaster

The Second UN Assembly on Ageing in Madrid is looking at ways of helping countries and societies adjust sensitively to their fast ageing populations and including them actively in society.


Don't overlook us.

The world is growing older and rapidly at that.

That’s the bottomline of the Second UN Assembly on Ageing that kicked off in Madrid on April 8 and the reason why the conference has taken on an added urgency.

Amid a plethora of facts and statistics on the world’s fast ageing population released by the UN, one can discern the clear warning bells of a momentous demographic shift that will affect all generations in all countries, both developing and developed.

Experts are already speaking of a demographic earthquake.

After all within 50 years for the first time there will be more older people than younger in the world. At present there are about 630 million people alive, who are older than 60. By 2050 that number will rise to over 2 billion.

By the year 2050 the average age in Western Europe will be 47 –today the average age world-wide is 26 years.

Any answers for some worrying questions?

The prospect of a booming white-haired population throws up an array of questions, the answers to which remain elusive.

For instance, how will pensions be paid if in the future there will be more pensioners than employed people?

How will a fast ageing population affect the economic development of a country? At what age should one be allowed to retire in the future?

How high will the costs of taking care of older people be? How should health insurance companies react to the demographic change?

How many immigrants does a country need to make up for the lack of young able-bodied people?

The UN conference will address some of these challenges in hopes of helping governments and societies plan policies that will ensure that older persons can contribute to society in a meaningful way to the best of their ability.

Being old in Germany is passè

The questions are of special importance to a West European country such as Germany, where the question of allowing young skilled foreigners into the country in the face of a speedily ageing population has riven the country.

Professor Andreas Kruse, Director of the Institute for Old Age Research in Heidelberg says, "It’s important that we try to make the maximum use of the possible productivity of old age and try to make that as wide-spread in society as possible. But I think that there are quite a few old people who would say -we would love to do something constructive for society, but we can’t because there are so many barriers – both legal and formal standing in the way. And it’s often because many old people are simply discriminated against when it comes to them being productive and useful."

According to Professor Kruse it’s absolutely crucial how others in society perceive older people.

"It’s also important to be able to communicate the inherent respect of old age. In Germany, as in other countries of the European Union, we definitely have a problem of age-based discrimination, we have very negative perceptions of old age".

Problem wide-spread in developing world too

But while richer western countries, driven by their youth-obsessed cultures grapple with becoming more sensitive to the needs of their older citizens, the problem of bloated ageing populations is by no means limited to the developed world.

UN experts speak of dramatic situations in the developing countries, where the rate of demographic change is four times as fast as in Western Europe.

By the year 2030, experts estimate that three quarters of all old people in the world will be living in developing countries.

The UN conference will draw up a 53-page draft document, due to be finalised by Friday. The document aims to build consensus among some 160 participating countries on ways to guarantee income for the elderly, provide health care and social services and include them more actively in society.

The task of the UN Assembly is an ambitious one.

But unfortunately the assembly has already hit snags as Arabs and Israelis had a spat over the status of elderly refugees and rich nations played down developing states’ calls for more money.

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