Feature VOL 21, NO. 04 - APRIL 2017

Changing population age structures and sustainable development: Achievements, challenges, opportunities

At its 50th session in April 2017, the Commission on Population and Development will consider a universal feature of recent population trends: changing population age structures. Gradual shifts in the age distribution of a population present both challenges and opportunities for sustainable development. The world’s population has undergone profound changes as mortality and fertility levels have decreased around the world. This pair of changes, known together as the demographic transition, leads initially to rapid growth and a younger population, driven by an early reduction in child mortality.

A subsequent decline in fertility triggers population ageing, which is further accentuated by reductions in adult mortality and the resulting increase in the number of persons who survive to older ages. The speed and timing of the demographic transition have varied greatly across countries and regions.

Major achievement of human development

The demographic transition represents a major achievement of human development. It has brought higher rates of survival from childhood to adulthood and longer life spans, as a consequence of an overall improvement in health. Other important elements of the transition are the greater ability of couples to choose the number and timing of any children they may desire, and the increased certainty that both children and mothers will survive the challenges of birth and childbirth.

The historical reductions in mortality and fertility are driven by, and help to reinforce, other defining aspects of sustainable development, including expanded access to education, improvements in sexual and reproductive health, and greater gender equality. Collectively, these changes promote an increased productivity of workers, a larger workforce especially as women take on new social roles, and a higher standard of living.

Changing population age structures also present a substantial challenge, especially to countries that are unprepared for them. The failure to account for and adapt to changes in a population’s age structure can exacerbate existing gaps in development, especially when the shift in population over time is toward age groups that lack access to essential services and social protection. Countries with growing populations of young people must find ways to provide education and employment opportunities for youth or risk forfeiting some of their potential contribution toward sustainable development.

Preparing for ageing populations

Because of population ageing, the number of persons requiring extended care due to disability or functional limitation is likely to increase in all countries. National health systems should promote healthy lifestyles and provide quality care throughout the life course. Governments and other stakeholders should support family caregivers while also providing options for community-based and institutional care when needed.

Countries unprepared for the challenge of population ageing will face difficulties in managing its fiscal impacts on public support systems for older persons. One policy option is to increase the statutory age of retirement in tandem with increasing life expectancy. Many countries have pursued other reforms of their social security systems, focusing on both the adequacy and the sustainability of the systems.

The challenges of population ageing can be mitigated to some extent if the population maintains a birth rate that is sufficient to ensure replacement of successive generations. In many countries today, young and middle-aged persons, especially women, face substantial challenges in balancing the demands of work and family, including caring for children and older parents. Policies that support the participation of women in the labour force, parental leave for both fathers and mothers, affordable child care, and long-term care for older persons, when needed, can ease downward pressures on the birth rate while contributing to gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Commission on Population and Development meets in early April

The Commission on Population and Development will consider these important issues when it meets from 3 to 7 April at UN Headquarters in New York. Informed by two recent reports of the Secretary-General, the Commission’s deliberations on the annual theme will be the main activity of delegates and other stakeholders, including many from civil society. There will also be keynote presentations, national voluntary presentations combined with a panel discussion and interactive debate, and a variety of side-events that will enhance and enrich the discussions.

It is anticipated that the Commission will point toward the ongoing changes in population age structure as important opportunities to enhance social and economic development. When the share of children in a population falls while that of working-age adults rises, there is typically a temporary increase in the ratio of workers to dependents.

The potential of a “demographic dividend”

A relative increase in the size of the working-age population can help to accelerate economic growth and the rise in income per capita. However, achieving the full benefit of this potential “demographic dividend” requires investment in human capital — ensuring access to health care and education at all ages — and opportunities for productive employment.

In later stages of the demographic transition, when population ageing puts pressure on budgets for public pensions and health care, the increasing proportion of older persons can nevertheless be accompanied by robust economic growth. Larger cohorts of older persons and increased savings per capita — partly in reaction to longer lifespans — can result in more money being available for capital investment, which can stimulate economic growth. To benefit fully from this second “demographic dividend”, countries should invest in education and health, ensure opportunities for productive employment, and encourage savings and investment.

In the video commemorating the 50th session of the Commission on Population and Development, Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, Mr. Wu Hongbo, stated that by the year 2050, the population may increase to 9 billion. Such dramatic population growth will present challenges for everyone – for governments and the international community. UN DESA’s Population Division and the Commission on Population and Development should use this opportunity to assess the trends and provide the policy guidance that is so important for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Commission

The 50th session of the Commission on Population and Development, taking place in 2017, also marks the 70th anniversary of the Commission, since its predecessor, the Population Commission, met for the first time in 1947. As stated by Carmen Barroso, former Director of International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere Region (IPPF/WHR): “The Commission plays a very important role because it has a solid technical background, but at the same time it is a space for political negotiation. The political negotiations are very complex, dealing with life, death, and power relationships”.

The Commission’s discussions this year on changing population age structures and sustainable development will encourage governments to become more familiar with a fundamental and universal aspect of demographic change that presents both challenges and opportunities for sustainable development. The Commission’s work will help to ensure that policy making on these important topics will be informed by a factual understanding of the underlying population dynamics that are shaping countries, regions and the world.

Follow the discussion on Twitter using the hashtags #CPD50, #UNPopulation and #UNDESA70. The plenary session will also be broadcast live via UN Web TV.

For more information: 50th session of the Commission on Population and Development

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