The challenges of an aging population

December 4th, 2010 by The Research Council of Norway

The fact that the world population is growing older will not only affect our pensions. In just a few decades there will be more elderly people than children in all parts of the world (with the exception of Africa).

“The trend is dramatic,” states the internationally-renowned Norwegian sociologist Gunhild Hagestad.

Media reports on the world’s aging population tend to focus on pensions and care for the elderly. But other changes could be just as important. What will happen to family life, for example? And what will the relationship between the generations be like when so many of us live longer and have fewer children?

Professor Hagestad in a recent lecture about the aging problem stated that our lives are shaped by the welfare policy of the states we live in to a much greater extent than we think.

China’s one-child policy is well known. Without it there would be 400 million more Chinese people in the world today. But the Nordic region also stands out internationally; its welfare policy clearly sets it apart from large parts of the world.

The two phenomena of low mortality and low fertility are having a distinct impact on the population in many countries. The result is a steadily aging population in almost all parts of the world, apart from in Africa.

Women are increasingly better educated, more independent and career-minded. This, combined with the lack of welfare schemes in many countries, goes a long way to explaining why women no longer want to have children. Researchers have identified this trend in a number of modern societies.

The Nordic region – and in particular Norway – is the exception to the rule, as childbirth rates there are still relatively high.

“In general, it is the poorest segments of the world’s population that now have the highest birth rate. This is something we ought not ignore,” says Professor Hagestad. She is aware that this perspective may seem elitist. All the same she thinks it too important not to be discussed.

“At this point in time there is a balance between the number of elderly people and the number of children in Norway. In my opinion it is important to try and maintain this,” says Professor Hagestad, who works at the University of Agder and Norwegian Social Research (NOVA).  China has one of the fastest growing elderly populations in the world. According to an article in the international journal Research on Aging in 2009, the elderly population in China will have tripled by 2050.

Norway and China are in many ways extreme opposites when it comes to family policy. Under China’s policy responsibility for the family rests entirely with families themselves. There are almost no institutions for the elderly, and few elderly people receive pensions. Most elderly people are therefore completely dependent on their families – and traditionally primarily on the women family members. However, Chinese women, too, are much more likely to be out working now than previously. The family as a network is also being weakened by rapid urbanisation.

The many years of one-child policy have resulted in 400 million fewer inhabitants, and China will be facing a problem in the future. Who is going to take care of the elderly? More and more married couples will find themselves responsible for four aging parents, without any siblings to share the task.

The same trend can be seen elsewhere in Europe, outside the Nordic region.  “In 2050 there will be four times as many elderly people in Italy as children. Greece, Spain, Portugal and many other countries will follow this pattern. Whereas Spanish women have to look after both their grandchildren and their elderly parents, in Norway this responsibility is divided between the public sector and the family. This is quite clearly the most important reason why fertility rates are so different,” says Professor Hagestad.

The relationship between the generations is also influenced by welfare schemes. This becomes clear if you compare the Nordic countries with countries in southern Europe.

“In Norway grandparents do not have to provide steady childcare for their grandchildren. They can come and go, providing back-up as required. In a country such as Spain, where the public sector does not provide the same level of childcare, this grandparenting strategy is much more risky. The result is that Norwegian and Nordic grandparents take their responsibility more seriously, as compared to grandparents in other European countries.”

“In the Nordic region responsibility for the care of the elderly has become an established part of the public sector. Nevertheless it is extremely rare that families do not provide help to other family members who need it,” Professor Hagestad remarks.

“The Nordic region is also an exception in another way: all over the world responsibility for taking care of the elderly primarily lies with women. But this is not the case in the Nordic countries. It is the only region where the researchers have found relatively small differences in expectations when it comes to how much daughters and sons should help their parents,” she explains.

“When segregation between young and old people becomes too marked, it can have a negative impact on a society,” says the professor.

“The result could be a society in which children, adults and the elderly spend even more of their time in separate spheres and gradually cease to understand each other. One way of counteracting this would be for children and elderly people to build alliances. But, if we are to succeed in this, society must first create the necessary framework.”

Apart from the increasing imbalance between the generations, the growing feminisation of the population is the most important demographic development trend in the world today.

“Women often cope better than men in the modern world. In most countries women outlive their husbands. In Norway girls born today can expect to live five years longer than boys (78 years versus 83 years). If you look at the oldest segment of the elderly population, in many countries there are twice as many women as men, including in Norway.”

In China the differences in life expectancy are less pronounced. There girls can expect to live until they are 75 and boys until they are 71. But in Russia women live on average 12-13 years longer than men,” Professor Hagestad points out. “Russian children may think that almost all old people are women. They hardly ever see any older men.”

China’s ban on families having more than one child was intended to last for 30 or 40 years. Now the Chinese authorities are saying that the policy will continue until 2015. But they are gradually allowing exceptions. A number of couples, in particular farmers, are permitted to have more than one child. The authorities now realise that the one-child policy will have significant negative ramifications, both economically and socially.

In August the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) presented a surprising report, in which the researchers urged the authorities to quickly bring the one-child policy to an end. The Chinese social scientists argued instead that people should be encouraged to have more children.

Researchers at CASS have found that it may be difficult to get Chinese people to have more children in the years to come, even if the authorities abandon their current stringent policy. In important areas of China, Chinese women will on average have fewer than 1.5 children in any case, the researchers warn. In order to maintain the current population level women need to have an average of 2.1 children each.

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