If this old Beatles song were written now, the number might be 74, perhaps 84, and maybe 94. We are living in the midst of an unprecedented transition, sometimes called the agequake, the rapid ageing of the industrialized world, and the forthcoming, even more rapid aging of the underdeveloped world.
The change is dramatic. Will societies have the resources to pay for the increased needs of older people, particularly when the number of working young is diminishing? How will economic and social life be affected? How will aging change people’s outlook on life?
In the developed countries, national wealth has increased along with the increase in ageing. The underdeveloped countries will reach their agequake before their wealth increases. They will have less time to adjust, raising many troubling questions.
Over the years the UN has recognized this trend and has explored the many issues it raises. Every October the UN celebrates the Day of Older Persons.The fact that people are living longer is a major achievement and a reason to celebrate. Two major world conferences on ageing have been held, one in 1982, and more recently in 2002. The 1982 conference mostly concerned the richer countries where the aging had begun. There the issues were discussed in terms of caring for the welfare of older persons. The 2002 conference took a totally different approach. Caring is still important, but the emphasis was on mainstreaming older people, using their skills as a treasured resource. The approach was intergenerational, avoiding age stratification into youth groups and elder enclaves.By building bridges between generations, the model is a society for all ages.
The facts are simple.In most countries people are having fewer children, and people are living longer. However, because of the explosive birth rate of the past, some societies are going through a massive youth bulge, with more than half of the population under 25.
For example, in Saudi Arabia 62%, Yemen 68%, and Iran 60%. Many of the youth are not prepared for modern life.These young people are becoming ever more restless without productive work.They present a major political problem for the present and the future.
By 2050 the number of older persons in the world will exceed the number of young for the first time in history. As the twenty-first century began, the world’s population included approximately 600 million older people, triple the number recorded 50 years earlier. By mid-century, there will be some 2 billion old– once again a tripling of the age group in a span of 50 years.
There is also a gender dimension to the aging phenomenon. Women nearly everywhere are living longer than men, so that more of the elderly are women. . Women are more likely to be poor, raising many other issues.
At the annual celebration of the International Day of Older Persons the emphasis was on healthy active aging, education for all ages, human rights and dignity. As an example of the concept of a society for all ages, the string section of the New Jersey Intergenerational Orchestra, with musicians ranging from 5 to age 91, played some popular pieces and ended with Mozart. The presentation was delightful, the blending of the generations a sheer pleasure.
Thinking personally, ageing is what happens while we are making other plans. We have added years to our lives. What kind of life will we add to these years?
Sylvain and Phyllis Ehrenfeld
IHEU Representatives to the Un and the AEU’s National Service Conference