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POPULATION: Aging, But Not Obsolete

Mithre J. Sandrasagra

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 11 2007 (IPS) - The U.N. Commission on Population and Development, meeting in New York this week, is discussing how to harness the untapped potential of older persons to strengthen families, communities and nations.

The global number of persons aged 60 or over will more than triple, from 705 million in 2007 to almost two billion in 2050.

By 2050, for the first time in history, the number of older persons in the world is expected to exceed the number of children.

Recognising that the issue of aging cannot be discussed in isolation from policy making, Victoria Zimmermann Von Siefart of Germany, speaking to the commission on behalf of the European Union, stressed that “the fact that people throughout the world lived longer should be seen as an opportunity for both individuals and society.”

Somnath Chatterji, team leader for Multi-Country Studies at the World Heath Organisation (WHO), applauded the fact that the issue of aging had taken centre stage in the global development debate.

“Global leaders are now aware of some of the real challenges posed by aging populations,” Chatterji said.

These include higher costs for social services, possible labour shortages and higher costs for pensions and health care.

Countries in the West would have to deal with the burden of chronic illness and the feminisation of ageing. The developing world, on the other hand, would have to deal with the burden of illness and maternal and infant mortality.

“Developing countries would face a unique challenge,” Chatterji said, “when their populations began to age: they would become older before they became richer.”

“We need to provide incentives so that older persons continue to consume, and contribute, whether in the informal or formal workplace,” Chatterji told IPS.

“In the developing world there is a far larger proportion of older people already employed, whether self-employed or in the formal sector, because it’s necessary for them, they need to earn their livelihood, and they remain a part of the workforce,” Chatterji said.

“If there is an introduction of a forced retirement age, or some other structure that incentivises leaving the workforce, that is going to create problems, as it has in the developed world,” Chatterji continued.

Currently, there are informal structures in the developing world that enable older people to contribute, like providing care for children at home or providing support within neighbourhoods.

“There is a risk that these structures will be dismantled,” Chatterji said, stressing that the developing world should not try to emulate the developed world in this regard.

In many instances in the developed world, the financial situation of retirees is actually better than when they were active in the workforce – they are wealthier, and their consumption is lower.

“These retirees could actually be contributing to society for an additional 30 to 40 years, but they are subsidised by the government, so they figure ‘why should I work?’,” Chatterji said.

Asked what can be done to encourage people to stay in the workforce, Chatterji said, “People see retirement as freedom, or a state of satisfaction, where they have already ‘done their bit,’ but a large incentive that can be provided for people to continue to work is satisfaction, outside of economics.”

“We have to find creative ways to incentivise this satisfaction and wellbeing,” Chatterji stressed, or the health problems of “obesity and disease” that accompany inactivity in retirement will continue to increase.

“Phased retirement is being used by certain companies in the United States to enable older people to contribute longer,” Graham Schmidt, vice president of EFI Actuaries based in New York, told IPS.

“These programmes enable people past the traditional retirement age to keep their jobs, but work less hours,” Schmidt said, emphasising that phased retirement enabled companies to continue to tap the expertise of senior professionals.

Another strategy Schmidt mentioned, noting that it is a negative incentive, was cutting post-retirement medical benefits to coax people to stay at work longer.

Pointing out that longer life expectancy has not been accompanied by longer working lives, Schmidt suggested simply “raising the retirement age of new hires.”

Average retirement ages have actually dropped, according to Djankou Ndjonkou of the International Labour Organization (ILO), speaking to the commission.

This poses a threat to the financial viability of public budgets and, as a result, older people risk being socially excluded, Ndjonkou said, stressing that, “Many older persons who would like to work longer were discriminated against and forced to leave the labour market prematurely or move to low-quality jobs.”

While high-income countries face the challenge of ensuring the sustainability of social protection systems, the main challenge for low-income countries is to extend social security coverage to the most vulnerable groups, according to the ILO.

“The promotion of decent work is the best way to ensure social protection for all and to allow older age groups the possibility of remaining active longer,” said Ndjonkou, stressing that in developing countries poverty among older populations was an increasing concern, and few older people could afford retirement.

Strategies to address the challenges of demographic change should aim to strengthen the role of social security as a productive factor in promoting employment, stimulating structural change and fostering economic growth, Ndjonkou stressed.

“We live in the best of times and the worst of times,” said Hania Zlotnik, director of the U.N. Population Division, noting that never before had so many people enjoyed such long and healthy lives.

Calling on the international community to work together for a world fit for all ages, Thoraya Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), said that there was much to be gained by planners and policymakers taking a hard look at population age structures and dynamics.

As they calculate their spending, Obaid said, “Officials need to know how many and what percentage of the populations were young, in their prime working years, and how many were older.”

Countries need to respond to the new realities revealed by changing age structures with policies and programmes to meet the needs of all groups in society, without compromising the rights of individuals to decide the size and timing of their families, she added.

In this regard, according to Zlotnik, “the Commission is expected to appeal for increased international funding for family planning programmes worldwide.”

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