building a society for all ages

Second World Assembly on Ageing Madrid, Spain 8 -12 April 2002

Ageing and development

"In Africa, it is said that when an old man dies, a library disappears. This reminds us of the vital role older persons play as intermediaries between the past, the present and the future; of the veritable lifeline they provide in society. Without the knowledge and wisdom of the old, the young would never know where they come from or where they belong. But in order for the old to have a shared language with the young, they must have the opportunity to continue learning throughout life."

-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan

Ageing in developing countries
Today, human society is being "restructured" by three simultaneous processes: globalization, urbanization and population ageing. Developing countries, once again, are being hit hardest.

The process of population ageing in developing countries will bring with it new challenges that are different from those confronted by developed countries. And within the group of developing countries, there are also commonalities and differences among regions and circumstances, including economic conditions, cultural traditions, family structure, the effects of widespread armed conflict, natural disasters, patterns of migration, refugee populations, catastrophic disease such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and even national laws. Three factors that contribute to the urgency of the process are the portion of the world's population living in developing countries, the widespread poverty that persists there, and the rapid pace at which the ageing process is taking place.

It is somewhat surprising that, at the beginning of the "urban millennium", with extraordinary migration to cities and towns taking place throughout the developing world, and with lower fertility rates, that most of the older population is still living in rural areas. But it can be explained: many young adults migrate to urban areas for economic reasons, leaving older persons behind; many older migrants who are leaving the workforce in urban areas often return to rural areas, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic strikes hardest at young adults.

Developing countries are facing a two-fold challenge: they must continue the process of development, which includes growing economies, providing education, and protecting human rights, at the same time that they must prepare for the ageing of their populations. And the process is expected to proceed much more quickly - in fact, startlingly so - in developing countries than it did in the industrialized world.

Population ageing in rural areas is already well under way.

· In rural areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America, the numbers of older presons are expected to double by 2025.

· In Africa, the number of older persons is expected to increase to 50 million, and in Asia, to 337 million.

· In 10 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of older persons in rural areas is at least twice as high as that in urban settings.

In rural areas, older women outnumber older men.
In 40 countries, the proportion of older women in rural areas is higher, and in certain cases much higher, than the proportion of older men.

Other transforming processes are taking place in developing countries that could further threaten the "secure ageing" of most the world's older persons in the decades ahead. In addition to migration and urbanization, the shift from extended to smaller, mobile families and the lack of access to technology that can promote independence, such as information and communications technology, and other socio-economic changes can further marginalize older persons from the mainstream of development, robbing them of their purposeful economic and social roles and weakening their traditional sources of support.

Ageing apace

· In France, it took 115 years, from 1865 to 1980, for the proportion of older persons to approximately double, from 7 per cent to 17 per cent.

· In China, it is projected that it will take only 27 years, from 2000 to 2027, for the proportion of the population aged 60 years and over to double, from 10 per cent to 20 per cent.

· In developing countries such as Colombia, Malaysia, Kenya, Thailand and Ghana, the rate of increase in the number of older people between 1990 and 2025 is expected to be 7 to 8 times higher than in the UK and Sweden.

· Developing countries are expected to have an increase of from 200 to 300 per cent in their older populations over a period of only 35 years.

· By 2020, it is projected that three-quarters of all deaths in developing countries could be age-related.

What will rural population ageing mean?
Population ageing in rural areas will be a powerful force for change. It will have major implications for agricultural production, food security, health services, labour markets and the process of development itself. It will also, without a doubt, affect social organization and production patterns. And families, the basic structural unit of rural societies, will experience rapid and significant demographic change, in many cases leading to reduced family support for older persons. Because of the speed with which rural ageing is expected to take place, the need for developing countries to make decisions, put policies in place and take concrete steps to prepare is urgent.

Some changes may seem to be fairly obvious; others may be less so.

· If possible, older farmers will very likely change to crops that are less labour intensive.

· Family livelihood strategies (saving and investment) may become more conservative and subsistence-oriented.

· Older farmers, especially poor ones, may be less able to adapt to technological change and less willing to experiment with new modes of production, which in turn could slow down agricultural modernization.

· Older farmers are much more likely to stop farming at any given time, due to retirement, ill health or death. In areas where many of the land-owning farmers are older, there is an increased likelihood that farms may be sold, transferred, or taken out of production. Such a situation could result in farm consolidation, or a change in crops. Land that is left unused and exposed to environmental degradation could result in decreased production.

Social and economic effects of ageing
It maybe as a social problem that effects of rural ageing will be felt most acutely, as the young move to the cities leaving older persons alone, sometimes in isolated areas, to look after themselves.

Many older persons in rural areas may not benefit from any significant pensions, health insurance or social security support. As the "urban commitment" of younger migrants to towns and cities grows, remittances sent home to rural areas may decrease, leaving older persons without financial support and without alternate resources. Segments of the older population could become marginalized and limited in opportunity, both financially and in terms of access: to economic resources, housing, health care and the ability to participate in social and economic life. An increasing gap could emerge between economically active and non-active persons, resulting in widening income gaps, or already existing social inequalities within countries could be intensified.

In such a situation, additional pressure will be placed on family and community institutions. As family support mechanisms break down, the costs of providing basic support services for the elderly will increase and become more difficult to meet. If forced to compete for scarce resources with older persons in urban areas, older persons in rural areas may lose out. Finally, the ageing of the rural population could reduce the growth of output and income, and thus adversely affect the overall economic performance of a country.

If such adverse scenarios develop without sufficient social preparations, many difficult questions will be posed for the state and for older persons. It may prove to be very difficult to ensure "secure ageing" in rural societies without serious preparations and planning. In more affluent societies, older persons may have the option of moving to towns where they can have family support, but in less affluent societies such an alternative may not be available. It is also important to remember that in many such areas poverty is still the norm.

"We must be fully aware that while the developed countries became rich before they became old, the developing countries will become old before they become rich."
-Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO Director-General

Is it all bad?
At the same time that there is much to worry about, it would be a mistake to view rural ageing as an all-negative trend. It some situations, it may offer valuable opportunities for positive change, such as altering rural socio-economic structures to new ones that are more supportive of sustainable development. In addition, the typical view of older persons as a liability or a constraint in a development model is narrow, inaccurate, and should be challenged. There are many benefits of ageing that are usually not recognized, such as the wealth of skills and experience that older people bring to the workplace, to public life and to the family. Technological advances and new ways of organizing society can be put to good use to increase the participation of older people in work, and to make appropriate socio-economic changes in rural areas.

Positive effects of population ageing

· In Asia and Latin America, the projected significant decline in the number of young people, together with the stabilization in the number of adults, is expected to reduce the current demographic pressures on land.

· There are some countries in Asia where the rural population has already aged significantly, and agricultural production has not suffered; on the contrary, due to increasing farm size and economies of scale, it has improved.

Dependency ratios: a window of opportunity
From the traditional viewpoint of dependency, large numbers of young and/or older people tend to burden the economy, as the consumption needs of economically "non-productive" members of society reduce the overall capacity for saving and investing. To put it more simply, having a large number of very young or very old, or both, is very expensive. But in recent decades, the most significant change in age structures in developing countries has not been the increase in older persons, it has been the reduction in the numbers of young people. The size of the 0-14 group has been declining in all developing regions since 1970-75, while the ageing of the population is only beginning, or is still in the future.

This lopsided shift - less young people before there are more older people - provides a "window of opportunity", when the total burden of dependents per person in the active age groups is reduced. There will be a brief period when overall expenditure will decrease relative to overall production. This economic respite opens up some new options. Developing countries should take advantage of this period to invest in economic development, training and education.

At almost every point in this demographic shift, decision-makers have options regarding the ways in which they will respond to these predicted demographic changes. The challenge for the international community, and the opportunity for the Second World Assembly on Ageing, is to better inform their choices among the various possible options so as to determine a beneficial result and a beneficial outcome in rural areas. It is also a unique opportunity to take positive advantage of a social restructuring that cannot be stopped.

To better promote progress and security for people of all ages, countries must respond competently to the challenges posed by rural ageing, and they must seize the opportunity to rethink their agricultural and rural development policies. At almost every point in this demographic shift, decision-makers have options regarding the ways in which to respond to the changes, and it will be their choices from the various possible options that will determine the resulting outcomes. There are areas where the status of older persons is high and their decision-making power is significant. In such areas, collaborative policies towards older persons could be extremely beneficial. But in all cases, policy-makers and programme managers must be careful to increase their sensitivity to the capabilities and needs of older persons. Doing so will ensure that they make wiser decisions.

As an example, public policies could give tax breaks and other incentives to rural families to make it easier for them to take care of their older family members. Special support could be extended to women, who tend to live longer and be poorer, but who also have better chances than men to continue working into old age as small-scale farmers, traders, traditional healers and providers of domestic help. It is quite feasible to turn "liabilities" into "assets", if provided with the appropriate supports and opportunities.

Extended working life and lifelong learning
In developed countries, it has long been recommended that older people be allowed to continue to work as long as they wish to or are able. This could have a beneficial impact on their income, on the labour supply, and on pension or social security plans. But in rural areas in developing countries, it may not be feasible. Where heavy manual labour is involved, it may be impractical. In areas stricken by HIV/AIDS, such as in much of Africa, older persons may already be working as long and as hard as they can: many of them, caring for adult children ill with HIV/AIDS, have been forced to take over the farm production in addition to becoming surrogate parents for their grandchildren. But in cases where it may be possible for older persons to work longer, supportive and innovative technical and organizational approaches to work and retirement should be used.

The lifelong-learning approach that has been suggested for retraining and skill enhancement in developed countries has not yet been tested with older persons in the rural environment. Such an undertaking would require large shifts in human resource policies, such as agricultural extension programmes, but it could provide the stimulus for innovative and creative alternatives.

Land tenure, land transfers, and ageing
The potential impact of population ageing on depopulation and land tenure is itself deserving of study. Today it remains poorly understood, together with its gender implications. Much more detailed examination is needed, especially on the need to fund services for older persons in more isolated rural areas. Such marginal areas would probably not be high priorities for social development, but it is incumbent upon modern states and nations to take steps to ensure that older persons in rural areas do not become marginal people.

The transfer of land among different generations may have far-reaching effects on food production, food security and development. Population ageing could change the way, or the stage of life, at which land is ceded from one generation to another. As heads of families and property live longer, there are many possible scenarios. With their parents living longer, adult children might migrate to urban areas. On the other hand, smaller family size could mean less children to share an inheritance, and thus strengthen a family's commitment to a rural and agricultural lifestyle. More generations living at the same time could mean more generations cooperating at the same time.

It is important to recognize that older persons play a dynamic role in the transfer of land from one generation to another, especially in traditional societies. Where land use is communal, it may be decided by the land chief and his fellow elders, based on the principle of seniority. It would be a mistake for policy-makers to overlook the role of older persons, who may hold the most promise for developing new strategies to assure food security and social stability. Establishing constructive policies that collaborate with older persons is crucial to ensure that land transfers are favourable to agriculture and to future food security.

Policy actions and development strategies must take into account the broad-based differences between the ageing process in the developed and developing worlds, and they should specifically suit the different circumstances. It is especially important that such policy actions be developed and carried out locally.

The Food and Agriculture Organization
The Food and Agriculture Organization, headquartered in Italy, is mandated to raise levels of nutrition and standards of living, to improve agricultural productivity, and to better the condition of rural populations. Rural ageing is one of its priorities. FAO has undertaken a series of studies on rural ageing and its effects. The articles can be found on the internet, at

This article was based on information provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization.

For further information, please contact:

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
Marcela Villarreal
UN Department of Public Information
Tel: (212) 963-0499

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information DPI/2264 March 2002

Back to Table of Contents