The Earth May Still Be Young, but the People on It Are Getting Old

ARNOLD R. ISAACS

August 15, 1993|By ARNOLD R. ISAACS

Looking not too far into the future -- only a few decades intothe next century -- population experts are beginning to see the outlines of global social and economic conditions dramatically different from anything humans have known in the past.

The reason: an unprecedented rise in the percentage of older people in most of the world's countries.

A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau points out that the growth in elderly populations, which already poses "a considerable challenge to policymakers" in many societies, is expected to accelerate sharply in the relatively near future.

"Current growth of the elderly is steady in some countries and explosive in others," the report says. "When the World War II Baby Boom cohorts common to many countries begin to reach their elder years after 2010, there will be a significant jump in the portion of the world's population that is elderly."

The increase of the "oldest old" -- those 80 and over -- will be even more pronounced: "stunning," in the words of the Census Bureau report. "Rapidly expanding numbers of very old people," it adds, "represent a social phenomenon without historical precedent."

The numbers are startling. Worldwide, in 1992, there were about 342 million people aged 65 or older, or 6.2 percent of the total population.

By 2050, scientists S. Jay Olshansky, Bruce A. Carnes and Christine K. Cassel estimated in last April's Scientific American magazine, the world's over-65 population may have exploded to 2.5 billion, about a fifth of the total.

That sounds a long way off. But think about this next time you walk past a playground or schoolyard: those kids, who will be hitting their mid-60s then, are already born.

That is to say, the "senior-boom generation" of the next century is already here -- and the "aging world" which scientists project is no statistical abstraction, but a reality that will profoundly affect lives now in progress, in the United States and all over the world.

The unprecedented aging trend, occurring across many regions and cultures, will have profound effects on family life, the workplace, global and national economies, social policies and public attitudes -- so profound, experts say, the results will be conditions brand-new in human experience.

"We are going where we've never been," said Richard Suzman, director of the Office of Demography at the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

Carl Haub, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, describes the coming situation as "unprecedented, certainly, in human history." And Mr. Olshansky and his co-authors wrote in their Scientific American article: "Many economic and social institutions that were conceived to meet the needs of a young population will not survive without major rethinking" -- to the point, they added, that aging, rather than population growth, will become the population issue that is "most important . . . from a policy standpoint."

Some of the issues are obvious, such as the greater demands on pension and health care systems as the proportion of elderly people climbs. Other implications are less evident. For example, will the retirement age, which has been dropping in many countries, start to climb back up because more older people (with relatively fewer younger workers to support them) need to keep working? Will the older generation, which traditionally passes along accumulated wealth to children and grandchildren, consume more of that capital now that they are living longer?

One group that will feel the changes particularly strongly will be women in late middle age, says Cynthia Taeuber, co-author of the Census Bureau report.

Women from 50 to 64 are typically "the ones who provide care for the frail, very old," Ms. Taeuber explained. As the "oldest old" population increases, "we expect to see a big increase in difficulties" for women in the 50-to-64 bracket because, compared to past generations, more of those women will be in the labor force themselves, more will have aged relatives, and those relatives will live and need care for many more years.

Statistical analysis cannot answer some key questions. One is whether longer lives will also mean more years of poor health and disability, or whether tomorrow's elderly will be healthier and more independent than today's.

On this issue, expert opinions are divided. The present trend seems to be toward less disability among the aging, says Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging, "but we don't know why," making it hard to predict what will happen in the future.

Judith Banister, chief of the Census Bureau's Center for International Research, says that increasing what is coming to -- be called "healthy life expectancy" will require an enormous change in the focus and philosophy of health care.

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