building a society for all ages

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

Population ageing: facts and figures

Unprecedented demographic changes are transforming today's world. The figures are mind boggling, but outside the arenas of social policy, academia and intergovernmental bodies, the topic of population ageing most likely will provoke nothing more than a great big yawn. That in itself is surprising, because the changes presented in a new United Nations Report - World Population Ageing: 1950-2050 and an accompanying wall chart, Population Ageing 2002 - will have extensive repercussions in all of our lives.

The report was prepared by the United Nations to "provide a solid demographic foundation for the debates" of the Second World Assembly on Ageing in Madrid. According to the report, the demographic changes of today and tomorrow are extraordinary and profound. Human society will itself be restructured, as social and economic forces compel us to find new ways of living, working and caring for one another. No one will remain untouched. And we will probably never again see societies demographically shaped as those in the past, with a large base of young people and fewer elders.

· The ageing of the population today is without parallel in the history of humanity. Increases in the proportions of older persons (60 or older) are being accompanied by declines in the proportions of the young (under age 15). By 2050, the number of older persons in the world will exceed the number of young for the first time in the history of mankind. You may not have noticed, but this historic reversal in relative proportions of young and old took place by 1998 in the more developed regions.

· Population ageing is a global phenomenon that has or will affect every man, woman and child anywhere in the world. The steady increase of older age groups in national populations, both in absolute numbers and in relation to the working-age population, will have a direct bearing on relationships within families, equity across generations, lifestyles, and the family solidarity that is the foundation of society.

· Population ageing is already having major consequences and implications in all areas of day-to-day human life, and it will continue to do so. In the economic area, population ageing will affect economic growth, savings, investment and consumption, labour markets, pensions, taxation and the transfers of wealth, property and care from one generation to another. Population ageing will continue to affect health and health care, family composition and living arrangements, housing and migration. In the political arena, population ageing has already produced a powerful voice in developed countries, as it can influence voting patterns and representation. Older voters usually read, watch the news, educate themselves about the issues, and they vote in much higher percentages than any other age group.

· The proportion of older persons continued to rise throughout the twentieth century, and that trend is expected to continue into the twenty-first century. In 1950, the proportion of older persons was 8 per cent; in 2000 it was 10 per cent; and by 2050 it is projected to reach 21 per cent.

Other key findings:

· The trend towards older populations is largely irreversible, with the young populations of the past unlikely to occur again.

· The increase in the older population is the result of the demographic transition from high to low levels of fertility and mortality.

· Number of persons aged 60 or older - Today (2002), the number of persons aged 60 years or older is estimated to be 629 million. That number is projected to grow to almost 2 billion by 2050, when the population of older persons will be larger than the population of children (0-14 years) for the first time in human history. Fifty-four per cent, the largest share of the world's older persons, live in Asia. Europe has the next largest share, with 24 per cent.

· Rate of growth increasing - Around the world, the population of older persons is growing by 2 per cent each year, which is considerably faster than the population as a whole. The older population is expected to continue growing more rapidly than other age groups for at least the next 25 years. The growth rate of those 60 or older will reach 2.8 per cent annually in 2025-2030. Such rapid growth will require far-reaching economic and social adjustments in most countries.

· Life expectancy at age 60 - The world has experienced dramatic improvements in longevity. Life expectancy at birth has climbed about 20 years since 1950, from 46 years to its current level of 66 years. Of those surviving to age 60, men can expect to live another 17 years and women an additional 20 years. However, there are still large differences in mortality levels between countries. In the least developed countries, the numbers drop to 15 years for men at 60 and 16 years for women. In the more developed regions, life expectancy at age 60 is 18 years for men and 23 years for women.

· Regional differences- Marked differences exist between regions in the number and proportion of older persons. In the more developed regions, almost one fifth of the population was aged 60 or older in the year 2000; by 2050, this proportion is expected to reach one third. In the less developed regions, only 8 per cent of the population is currently over the age of 60; however, by 2050 older persons will make up nearly 20 per cent of the population.

· As the pace of population ageing is much faster in developing than in developed countries, developing countries will have less time to adjust to the consequences of population ageing. Moreover, population ageing in the developing countries is taking place at much lower levels of socio-economic development than was the case in the developed countries.

· Today the median age for the world is 26 years. The country with the youngest population is Yemen, with a median age of 15 years, and the oldest is Japan, with a median age of 41 years. By 2050, the world median age is expected to have increased by ten years, to 36 years. The country with the youngest population at that time is projected to be Niger, with a median age of 20 years, and the oldest is expected to be Spain, with a median age of 55 years.

· The older population is itself ageing. In fact, the fastest growing age group in the world is the oldest-old, those aged 80 years or older. They are currently increasing at 3.8 per cent per year and comprise 12 per cent of the total number of older persons. By the middle of the century, one fifth of older persons will be 80 years or older.

· Sex ratio - The majority of older persons are women. Because life expectancy is greater for women than for men, today there are 81 older men per 100 older women. Among the oldest old there are only 53 men for every 100 women. The ratio of men to women at older ages is lower in the more developed regions (71 men per 100 women) than in the less developed regions (88 men per 100 women), since there are larger differences in life expectancy between the sexes in the more developed regions.

· Percentage of older population currently married - Older men are much more likely than older women to be married. This is because women live longer, and women tend to be younger than the men they marry. Today, 78 per cent of older men are married, but only 44 per cent of older women are. Most unmarried older persons have been widowed. Men are more likely to remarry - someone younger.

· Potential support ratio - The potential support ratio, or PSR (the number of persons aged 15-64 years per one older person aged 65 years or older), indicates the dependency burden on potential workers. The impact of demographic ageing is visible in the PSR, which has fallen and will continue to fall. Between 1950 and 2000, the PSR fell from 12 to 9 people in the working ages per each person 65 years or older. By mid-century, the PSR is projected to fall to 4 working-age persons for each person 65 years or older. Potential support ratios have important implications for social security schemes, particularly traditional systems in which current workers pay for the benefits of current retirees.

· Parent support ratio - The health of older persons typically deteriorates with increasing age, inducing greater demand for long-term care as the numbers of the oldest-old grow. The parent support ratio, the ratio of the population 85 or older to those aged 50 to 64, provides an indication of the support families may need to provide to their oldest members. Globally, there were fewer than 2 persons aged 85 or older for every 100 persons aged 50-64 in 1950. By 2000, the ratio had increased to 4 per 100, and it is projected to reach 11 by 2050.

· Levels of worker participation -Countries with high per capita incomes tend to have fewer older workers. In the more developed regions, 21 per cent of men aged 60 years or older are economically active, while in less developed regions 50 per cent of men are. In the more developed regions, 10 per cent of older women are economically active, compared to 19 per cent in less developed regions. Older persons participate to a greater extent in labour markets in the less developed regions, largely owing to the limited coverage of retirement schemes and, when they are available, the relatively small incomes they provide.

· Statutory retirement age - In more developed regions, men become eligible for full pension benefits at age 65 or older in more than one half of countries, while the most common standard retirement age for women is between 55 and 59 years. The standard retirement age in less developed regions is often lower than in more developed regions, most commonly between 60 and 64 years for men. For women, the standard retirement age in less developed countries is 64 years or lower. The differential between more and less developed regions probably reflects differences in life expectancy, which is lower in less developed regions.

· Literacy - Although literacy has been increasing among the older population, illiteracy is still common. In 2000 in the less developed regions, about half of all persons 60 or older were literate. Only about one third of older women and about three fifths of older men could read and write at a basic level of competence. In the more developed regions, literacy was nearly universal in all but a few countries.

The unparalleled demographic changes that began in the 19th and 20th centuries and will continue well into the twenty-first century are transforming the world. The years added onto our life expectancies and the widespread declines in fertility are producing dramatic changes in the structure of all human societies-most notably the historic reversal in the proportions of young and older persons. The profound and enduring consequences of population ageing will present enormous opportunities and challenges for all societies.

Issues related to population ageing and older persons have played a prominent role in the three major international population conferences organized by the United Nations over the past quarter century. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development recognized that the economic and social impact of population ageing is both an opportunity and a challenge to all societies. More recently, at the 1999 Special Session on Population and Development, the General Assembly adopted additional key actions for the further implementation of the 1994 Programme of Action and again stressed the need for all societies to address the significant consequences of population ageing in the coming decades.

The report World Population Ageing: 1950-2050 and the wall chart Population Ageing 2002 were prepared by the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which has a long tradition of studying population ageing and projecting its consequences. In 1956, the Population Division published a groundbreaking report on population ageing, which focused mainly on the more developed countries.

For additional information, please contact:

United Nations Population Division
Tel: (1-212) 963-3179
UN Department of Public Information
Tel: (1-212) 963-0499

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

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