Governments must take advantage of demographic shift, UN meeting told

USG José Antonio Ocampo

9 April 2007 – Countries should seize the unique “window of opportunity” offered by current changes in world population structure, the top United Nations official in charge of economic and social issues said today at the opening of the annual UN Population Commission meeting in New York.

José Antonio Ocampo, the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said many countries are at the stage when fertility falls from high to low levels and the number of people in the prime working-age category increases compared with that of children and older persons. During this “window of opportunity,” the number of potential workers rises in relation to dependants, with possible beneficial effects on the economy.

But such benefits are not automatic, Mr. Ocampo said. “The right policies are necessary to improve human and physical capital, increase employment and promote savings,” as well as “to increase the educational attainment of children and young people” so as to provide enough trained workers to the workforce.

In addition, “to ensure that the window of opportunity gives rise to economic growth that may persist even after the window closes, it is essential to increase not only production but also savings and the accumulation of assets,” Mr. Ocampo said, adding governments should foster institutions that promote savings for retirement and the accumulation of other assets. Lengthening people’s productive lives and increasing retirement age was another option, he said.

“The current bulge in the youth population presents an unprecedented opportunity for growth and transformation depending on the choices that governments make,” said UN Population Fund Executive Director Thoraya Obaid. “Investing in young people’s education, health including their sexual and reproductive health, and employment” would yield large returns.

Governments should make greater investment in young people “and especially adolescent girls, so that they can pass safely to adulthood,” she said.

According to a UN report, the region with the longest “window of opportunity” and the highest ratio of potential workers to dependants is Africa, where older persons represent just 5 per cent of the population and children comprise 41 per cent. Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean have a couple of decades to benefit from the optimal worker to dependant ratio, while Europe and North America are no longer likely to benefit as they are well advanced in the population ageing process.

The annual session of the UN Commission on Population and Development, which focuses on “the changing age structure of populations and their implications for development,” concludes on Friday.

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