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The big picture

DEMOGRAPHICS | July 21, 2013

The big picture

As life expectancy climbs and birth rates fall, aging populations the world over will present cultural and economic hurdles on an unimaginable scale.


conomies will be transformed, public pension systems will be strained and demand for geriatric and long-term care will explode.

Maine’s senior boom is part of a global trend that’s already fueling political and economic unrest in many countries and raising concern among government leaders and others.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently suggested that the European Union finance early retirement programs for older workers as a way to combat widespread youth unemployment and quell protest riots in Spain, Italy, Greece and elsewhere.

In China, the country's one-child-per-couple policy is wreaking havoc in families where, for centuries, seniors have counted on their children to care for them. The government recently passed a law forcing adult children to visit elderly parents and there's growing demand for nursing homes.

In 2012, China's working-age population decreased for the first time, by 3.45 million to 937 million people, prompting concerns about future labor shortages. Meanwhile, the country's 60+ population increased by 8.9 million to 194 million people, the Chinese government reported. By 2053, China's 487 million seniors will represent 35 percent of the population.

France, Italy and Spain have offered financial incentives to encourage women to have more babies, hoping to boost birth rates that are below 2 children per woman of childbearing age and offset growing senior populations.

And in India, which has no government health care or pension programs, officials are developing a policy to address a burgeoning senior sector as the country’s overall population is set to surpass China’s, with 1.4 billion people by 2025.

Worldwide, the proportion of seniors is skyrocketing thanks to better health care, family planning and other factors that are resulting in increasing longevity and declining birth rates, according to the United Nations Population Fund and other agencies studying the trend.

Aging was first addressed as a global issue in 1948, when the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations conducted a worldwide study. The first World Assembly on Aging was held in 1982, in Vienna, Austria.

The Second World Assembly, held in 2002 in Madrid, Spain, produced more than 100 recommendations to prepare for a rapidly aging population and improve the quality of life and care of older people across the globe.

Evidence of an aging world has only intensified since then, but most countries have done little to prepare for it.

In 1950, there were 205 million people age 60 and older in the world. By 2012, 810 million of the world’s 7 billion people were in that age group, accounting for 11.5 percent of the global population. The number of seniors is expected to reach 1 billion within 10 years and hit 2 billion by 2050, when elders will account for 22 percent of the total population.

Global life expectancy has increased two decades since 1950, from 48 to 68 years, and it’s expected to rise to 75 years by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.

The world’s birth rate, meanwhile, has fallen, from five children per woman in 1950 to about 2.5 children today, and it’s expected to drop to two children per woman by 2050.

As a result, the number of working-age people supporting retired people (65+) is plummeting, from an average ratio of seven people age 20 to 64 for each pensioner in 1950, to four working-age people per pensioner today, to two working-age people per pensioner in 2050, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Thirty years ago, there were no “aged economies,” where consumption by older people surpassed that of young people. In 2010, there were 23 aged economies and by 2040, there will be 89, the United Nations reported in “Ageing in the Twenty-First Century.” By 2050, for the first time in recorded history, the number of seniors will exceed the number of children under age 15.

Economists say delaying legal retirement would help many countries, and some have reformed their social security systems in recent years, including Greece, Italy, Germany, Portugal, South Korea and Japan.

But while life expectancy in 43 mostly developed countries increased an average of nine years from 1965 to 2005, the average legal retirement age has increased only about six months, according to the World Bank.

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The demographics of Maine

With an abundance of baby boomers and not enough babies, the state with the highest median age grapples with a reality that University of Southern Maine public policy expert Charles Colgan says paints a grim economic forecast.

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The public policy initiative

The Maine Council on Aging, formed last year, is intent on enhancing the lives of our graying population.

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