Jerusalem inhabitants.Flickr.Some rights reserved.Countries around the world are experiencing one of the greatest demographic disruptions in history – the rapid aging of their populations. With few exceptions, in large and small, industrialized and developing countries alike, longer lifespans and reduced birthrates will drive an unprecedented growth in the proportion of the population aged 65+.
Foresight into the pace and shape of this transformation allows for a much needed rethink of the role of adults in our communities and economies, with the recognition that a healthier, more productive and engaged population is essential to building a prosperous and sustainable future.
In 2006, Japan became the first ‘super-aged’ country, when the share of 65+ hit 21% of the country’s population. Today, there are 4 super-aged countries – Japan, Italy, Greece and Germany, and 35 aged (14% of a country’s population) – which are all developed economies. In less than one decade, these numbers will rise rapidly to reach 24 super-aged in 2025, drawing in most of Europe, and 32 aged, including the major developing economies of China and Russia.
This rapid shift in population reflects a dramatic acceleration in the pace of ageing. It took France 115 years to transition from “ageing” to “aged”, 40 years for the UK, and 25 years for Japan. And, developing countries are moving at an even faster pace – Brazil and China are projected to complete the transition in just over 20 years. In Mexico, which today does not even qualify as an aging society, the share of the population over 65 is expected to grow by more than 250% by 2050 – from 6.5% today to 19%. All this underscores the need to proactively consider and prepare for the impacts these massive shifts will have on our societies and how the public and private sector can anticipate and make the most of this transition.
What old age looks like
Countries can’t influence their pace of ageing in the coming decades, but they can shape what old age looks like in their societies. And by looking across countries and outcomes, one can begin to understand what choices can be made today to shape that future. Is there a supportive infrastructure for active living and social engagement? What factors enable older adults to continue to contribute to economic prosperity? How are countries shifting from a focus on lifespan to extending the span of healthy living? How can technology be employed to facilitate all of this – from social connection, to economic engagement to the provision of healthcare services?
Take prosperity – today, high rates of employment among older adults mirror poverty rates in a country as low income seniors are forced to continue working. This stands to change, given improvements in healthcare and education and a desire to remain active and productive. In China, volunteerism has proven both appealing and valuable – its Silver Age Action Initiative taps the knowledge and expertise of the country’s older urban middle class to advance social and economic development in rural areas. 5 million retired professionals participated in the first decade of the program (ending in 2014), serving more than 300m people, with contributions valued at $1.2bn USD. And in the UK, older adults are prolonging or re-entering the formal economy in new fields; there, older adults account for about a quarter of the beneficiaries of the New Enterprise Allowance, a novel program to support entrepreneurship through loans and mentorship. In the US, employers site a ‘skills gap’ as a primary business risk in the coming years and are testing new approaches to allow for a more phased and flexible approach to retirement to retain older workers.
Here We Live
Some of the most interesting innovations in ageing policy emerge from a more holistic view of a society’s looming challenges. With social cohesion a cultural priority, Israel has long been a leader in ensuring that its citizens are able to remain active within their communities as they age. Its most popular new initiative was the result of connecting this tradition with a pressing issue for young people – the affordability of higher education. In the Kan Garim (Here We Live) program, participating students receive a scholarship and reduced rent while living in the home of an older adult and spending 5 hours with them each week. The program had a wildly successful first year and is now expanding. The model initiative is being replicated in the UK and studied by other countries facing similar challenges.
Technological advancements are also opening up new opportunities – both to improve the lives of older people and generate new markets. For example, today, South Korea’s older population struggles with low educational attainment and high poverty, but this is set to shift dramatically in the coming years. Second only to Singapore is its rapid pace of ageing, the next generation of South Koreans are educated, tech savvy and relatively affluent – promising a booming ‘silver economy’. Companies are developing digital products and solutions tailored to older adults’ needs, with particular focus on mobile devices and telecom services. And the government is seeking to leverage this connectivity in its ‘U Health’ program (the U is for ubiquitous), using mobile devices to conduct checkups and provide other medical services.
While every country faces unique pressures and must operate within (sometimes shifting) cultural norms – the challenge is the same: ensuring that a rapidly ageing population remains an engaged and vital part of society. Looking to the future, governments around the world are beginning to experiment with new policies to address the challenges and harness the opportunities associated with these monumental population shifts, but work has just begun. For countries that navigate this transition well, rather than merely viewing ageing populations as a fiscal burden, these aging populations can, in fact, help drive greater prosperity and competitiveness.
Over the past year, FP Analytics and AARP have partnered to conduct an in-depth study of aging policy in 12 countries on 5 continents that together represent 61% of the global economy and nearly half of all people age 65+. The Aging Readiness and Competitiveness Report will be released on June 6, 2017.