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60 is the new 50: Rethinking ageing in the SDGs era

Blowing out the birthday candles, a newly minted sexagenarian will often think: “But I don’t feel 60.” And demographers back that sentiment with data that documents the remarkable revolution in longevity, which is redefining the meaning of turning 60. In a very real, demographic sense, 60 is the new 50.

According to statistics from UN DESA’s World Population Prospects, new 60-year-olds in high-income countries can expect to live at least another 25 years. As recently as in the 1950s, this was true of 50-year-olds.

All societies in the world are in the midst of this longevity revolution – some are at its earlier stages and some are more advanced. But all will pass through this extraordinary transition, in which survival to age 60 changes from a flip‑of‑the-coin, 50-50 chance – as was the case in Sweden in the 1880s – to a near certainty at present. What is more, the proportion of adult life spent beyond age 60 increases from less than a quarter to a third or more in most developed countries.

These changes for individuals are mirrored in societal changes. Older persons become the largest demographic group in society – accounting for more than a quarter of the population. Today, that is true for 15 countries, but UN DESA’s Population Division expects that number to grow to 145 countries by the end of the century covering most of the world’s population.

Traditionally, the United Nations and most researchers have used measures and indicators on ageing that are mostly or entirely based on people’s chronological age, defining older persons as those 60 years and older. This has so far provided a simple, clear and easily replicable way to measure and track various indicators of ageing.

However, there has been increasing recognition that the mortality risks, health status, type and level of activity, productivity, and other socio-economic characteristics of older persons have changed significantly in many parts of the world over the last century, and even more so, over the last several decades. This has led to the development of alternative concepts and measures of ageing to provide different outlooks on the levels and trends of ageing, and to offer a more nuanced appreciation of what ageing means in different contexts.

New measurements and concepts of population ageing have significant implications for measuring living conditions and living arrangements of older persons as well as their contributions to their societies. Further, new measurement approaches impact on the assessment of older persons’ needs for social protection and health care, their labour market participation as well as planning for life-long education.

These changes, and the various approaches to understanding and measuring ageing, also carry important implications for the review of long-term, international development goals. These include the objectives highlighted in the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) and, most recently, the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To take stock of these new concepts and methodological approaches to measuring ageing and to assess their applicability and possible implications for policy analysis and policy development at the national and international level, UN DESA’s Population Division, the International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA), and Chulalongkorn University, in collaboration with the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP), are organizing an international expert group meeting on “Measuring population ageing: Bridging Research and Policy”. One of the highlights of the event will be a moderated discussion of journalists on the role of media as they inform but also reflect public attitudes and opinions on population ageing.

The meeting will be held in Bangkok, Thailand from 25 to 26 February 2019 and is expected to be attended by about 80-100 government officials, academia, civil society and the media from all over the world.

Interested participants who will not be able to attend the event in person can follow the event via live-stream over the internet.

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