U.N. finds global population on unparalleled aging trend

Shift in demographics raises several concerns


UNITED NATIONS - While many countries worry about a bulge in the number of restless young people with no jobs and too much time on their hands, the United Nations said Thursday that the world's population is in fact steadily getting older everywhere.

"The changes that are going on are not paralleled in any century before the 20th century," said Joseph Chamie, director of the U.N. population division. "We will see this trend accelerating in the 21st century."

If there were fears of instability generated by the idea of large numbers of unemployed young people becoming ready recruits for militancy or crime, an older population raises other concerns. As the United States already has discovered, pressures mount on health care systems, health insurance plans and social security as well as private pensions.

In poorer countries, some of these safety nets do not exist. Sri Lanka, for example, has a rapidly aging population and free health care - but no social security and few pension plans.

The United Nations found that in richer countries, people over 60 now account for one-fifth of the population. Predictions indicate that the proportion will reach one-third by 2050. In poorer countries, only 8 percent of the population is over 60 now, but that is expected to rise to 20 percent by 2050.

With more people living longer and families getting smaller in most countries, the fastest-growing age group in the world consists of people over 80, the United Nations found, growing at 3.8 percent annually.

U.N. demographers are riveted on a statistic they call the "potential support ratio": the number of people 15 to 64 who are available as workers to sustain the retirees. In 1950 the ration was 12 to 1; in 2000 it was 9 to 1. By 2050, there may be only 4 to 1 worldwide.

The majority of the older people are women. In poor countries they may not always be able to count on the support of families.

Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan released a report on the abuse of the elderly, in advance of a conference in Madrid in April on issues facing the aging.

It mentioned practices like ostracism, which occurs in some societies.

It also asserted that while physical, financial, emotional and even sexual abuse of older people is "grossly underreported" generally, studies done in the United States, Canada and elsewhere show that the problem is found in rich as well as poor nations.

As for the youth bulge, that will fade into history, never to return, if U.N. projections are correct:

The median age in the world today is 26; it should be 36 by 2050. Yemen now has the youngest median age, 15, and Japan the oldest, 41.

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