Press Releases

Note to Correspondents

Note No 181
21 March 2002

THE "AGEQUAKE": CHALLENGES OF
A DEMOGRAPHIC REVOLUTION


"We are in the midst of a silent revolution that extends
well beyond demographics, with major economic, social,
cultural, psychological and spiritual implications."


UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

The Second World Assembly on Ageing as a unique opportunity to build a society for all ages,
Madrid, 8 – 12 April 2002

The ageing of the global population increasingly captures the world's attention as one of the defining characteristics and challenges, of the twenty-first century. Twenty years ago, in 1982, ageing in developed countries was in the focus of substantive discussions at the First World Assembly on Ageing in Vienna. That is still an issue of major importance, but by 2002 the majority of older people is living in developing countries, and the institutional framework and capacity of many governments to both sustain development of their ageing societies and ensure well-being into old age will be facing greater challenges.

The twentieth century witnessed a historical lengthening of the human life span. Over the last 50 years, life expectancy at birth climbed globally by about 20 years to reach 66 years, thanks to advancements in medical knowledge and technology. Already approximately 1 million people cross the threshold of age 60 every month, 80% of them in developing countries. The proportion of persons aged 60 years and older throughout the world is expected to more than double, from 10 to 22%, between 2000 and 2050, at which time it will be as large as the proportion of children under the age of 14. This historic demographic transition from a state of high birth and death rates to one characterised by low birth and death rates will result, for the first time in human history, in the old and the young representing an equal share in the population.

Old aged not a burden but an asset

The major impact of the actual "agequake" is about to strike developing countries: while it took some countries in Western Europe over 100 years for their older populations to double during the twentieth century, in the twenty-first it will take some countries in the developing world just 25 years, or even less. Such a demographic boom represents remarkable changes in individual lives, going beyond the simple addition of years and into very complex and pervasive directions. While celebrated by society at large and by its individual members, increased longevity has profound implications for quality of life and healthy ageing issues, employment and social integration, the situation of older women and the fostering of support and social security over the long course of life. The suddenness of demographic change combined with alarming rates of poverty and shrinking resources in developing countries underscores the pressing need for policies to take into account innovative approaches to increase the participation and social integration of older persons in society. New policies that respond to this unprecedented growth in the number of people living into old age will help mitigate tensions in the socio-economic fabric of family. Attempts to reach the most desirable outcomes must be driven by acknowledgement that the same demographic trends that anticipate broad-scale challenges in the infrastructure of society at the same time warrant fresh discussions and policy action on how to utilise the innumerable contributions of its older citizens.

The Assembly in Madrid is responding to a world-wide call for a revised International Plan of Action that reflects the current realities and future challenges facing developing, developed and transition economies alike. There is also a growing need to integrate global ageing within the larger context of development and to address the situation of older persons within the broader life-course perspective in order to achieve world commitments on poverty eradication, health promotion and social development. Thus, a policy framework based on a holistic and equitable approach must include the knowledge, research and experiences gained since 1982.

International Plan of Action to be revised

The 189 UN Member States suggest the following issues to be addressed by the revised International Plan of Action:

  • societal participation by older persons, political representation and social inclusion
  • protection of older persons from abuse and violence
  • commitment to gender equality
  • recognition of the crucial importance of inter-generational interdependence, solidarity and reciprocity to social development
  • migration of younger generations and its impact on older people
  • greater sensitivity vis-à-vis older persons in rural areas or those belonging to minority ethnic groups
  • promotion of life-course planning for better health and well-being in older years

International non-governmental organisations and United Nations see the following priorities for future action in developing countries: health care and caregiving, protection of human rights, social security systems, concerns of older women, migration, and the impact of chronic non-communicable disorders and the HIV epidemic.

These issues clearly warrant careful attention, but at the same time should not overshadow a troubling reality in parts of the developing world where old age comes earlier for large populations marked by the physical wear and tear of poverty and disease. Prolonged economic and psychosocial hardship, compounded by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, have reversed life expectancy gains in some countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

However, the revised International Plan of Action must be a resource for policy planners and other stakeholders in the field of ageing. It must help in building a practical blueprint for policy makers to strengthen their capacity to adequately address issues of ageing in their respective countries. The challenge for the 21st century is to achieve a society that embraces an ageing population as an integral part of its future and includes older persons as essential partners in achieving the future society for all ages.

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