The Age of Old: The Population Bomb We Should Have Seen Coming (link suite overview)

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On demographic destiny, boomers as geezers, population pyramids, the Singularity, dementias, Simon & Garfunkel, why humanitarian & public health policymakers have even more to worry about and areas ripe for impact investing and social enterprise

“The Age of Old”—  New suite of links on

The future, it turns out, isn’t all that hard to predict. No oracles required. Just some actuarial tables and possibly a good stiff drink. The picture that emerges from the tea leaves of data sets looks pretty good, at least until you look a bit deeper: More people are living longer than ever before.

The first American baby boomers turn 65 this year, marking the start of a geezer boom that will see as many as 10,000 erstwhile hippies qualifying for senior discounts every day for the next 18 years (globally, the stat tops 125,000 per day). As all things baby boom, it is a marketer’s dream, complete with an MIT lab devoted to designing products and services to help seniors “‘do things’ throughout the lifespan,” and anti-aging hucksters lining up for a piece of a multi-billion dollar pie.

The bigger story, though, is about demographic distribution, visualized in “population pyramids.”

population pyramids over time

When a population is young, the graph looks like a pyramid, with children at the bottom far outnumbering their elders. Epidemics, wars and natural disasters chip chip away at a pyramid’s profile, but nothing chips more dramatically than contraception. It is no coincidence that the US baby boom ended a few years after “The Pill” was approved by the FDA in the early 1960s. Contraception has also played a key role battling skyrocketing birth rates in developing countries, with collateral benefits for women’s rights and economic improvement.

Yet as intrinsically good as improved health care and family planning may be, it turns out there are some serious unintended consequences.

Journalist Ted Fishman’s new book, “Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation, goes into great jaw-dropping detail about those consequences, noting that two other 21st trends—urbanization and globalization—are actually making things worse.

“A Shock of Gray” is a guide book to a world that’s coming. We are just in the first ten minutes of a demographic denouement that’s been unfolding for 100,000 years. For the first time in history, there are more people over 50 than there are under 17. And that turns the world upside down.

Rarely at TrackerNews have we come across a story with so many tentacles. Like climate change, “the gray tsunami”—as some have termed it—puts a twist on everything.

Globally, the median age is 28, meaning there are just as many people older than that as younger. In less than a decade, there will be more people over 65 than under the age of 5. By 2045, there will be more people over 60 than children, period.

Interestingly, 2045 is also the year futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts for the “Singularity,” the moment  when machine intelligence and technological know-how matches, then surpasses, human capabilities, leading to a “transhuman” future unbounded old fashioned slow-and-steady evolutionary constraints.

The most important perspective in my view is that health, medicine, and biology is now an information technology, whereas it used to be hit or miss. We not only have the (outdated) software that biology runs on (our genome), but we have the means of changing that software (our genes) in a mature individual with such technologies as RNA interference and new forms of gene therapy that do not trigger the immune system. (from Technology Review)

Even without fancy “Borg-ish” interventions, demographers predict there were be 3.2 million centenarians in the world by 2050, a more than 6-fold increase from the current numbers.

Humans are turning into Energizer bunnies that just keep going, though sadly not without operational glitches.

The rates of age-related chronic illnesses—diabetes (exacerbated by an obesity epidemic), cancer, impaired vision and dementias—are spiking upwards with no end in sight. Beyond the incalculable heartbreak, the economics are staggering. According to a new study released by Alzheimer’s Disease International, “the worldwide costs of dementia will exceed 1% of global GDP in 2010, at US$604 billion.”

Even diseases that don’t affect the elderly directly can have a tremendous impact on them. Pandemic influenza, for example, usually takes its biggest toll on adults in the prime-of-life. But since those people are also the caregivers, their loss can easily cascade into another round of tragedy.

Although the problem is one of demographic relativity—the ratio of old to young—the answer is not more babies. The absolute population numbers are still rising—expected to hit 9 billion by mid-century—while limited natural resources are either under siege or running low and food production barely keeps pace with demand.

Kurzweil, ever the optimist, is hopeful that the Singularity will also deliver a bounty of tech solutions for all manner of catastrophic developments.

Meanwhile, the fuse has been lit on a population bomb—albeit an evil twin of the one Ehlich warned about—and the clock is ticking.

“How terribly strange to be 70,” sang Old Friends Simon & Garfunkel in 1968 at the ripe age of 27. This year, they will be 70. Maybe not so strange any more?


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5 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Maria Popova and Janet A. Ginsburg, AmanB. AmanB said: global challenge – graying of populations: rt @TrackerNews "The Age of Old" on demographic destiny: […]

  2. All of this seems to assume continued economic growth, at least at a pace that MIGHT keep up with current standards of living. The truth is that if gas hits 5$ a gallon in the summer of 2012 (or whenever it does), it will never drop again. The world isn’t running out of oil; it is running out of cheap, easily-accessed oil. The amount of energy we produce per capita on Earth will plummet rapidly this century (and yes, I have heard of geothermal, wind, solar, and nuclear power; if they were adequate substitutes, we’d be using a lot more of them already). Ray Kurzweil won’t live to see it, but our grandchildren are far more likely to live like our great-grandparents than in some futuristic utopia. As we all have to make do with working harder for less and less (I believe some people call it Poverty), all those old people may be able to be productive members of society, but they’ll be picking soybeans and slaughtering chickens with the rest of us…

    • Hello Bob,

      Although the issues of energy and demographics intersect, the focus of the story is on population distribution: The demographic die has been cast. Economic growth or decline can make things a bit better or a lot worse, but the underlying problem—a dramatic increase in the number of older people as a proportion of the population—remains.

  3. […] sitio Tracker ha recopilado una serie de datos y prospecciones, relacionadas con este nuevo paradigma que se […]

  4. Population Ageing: A Larger and Older Population

    The world’s population is not only growing larger, it is also becoming older. Population ageing is an inevitable consequence of fertility decline, especially if it is combined with increases in life expectancy. The proportion of older persons is increasing at a faster rate than any other age segment. In developed countries, the proportion of older people already exceeds that of children. In developing countries, proportion of older people is increasing rapidly due to the faster pace of fertility decline that has resulted from the success of reproductive health and family planning programmes.

    According to the UN Population Division, during the next 45 years, the number of persons in the world aged 60 years or older is expected to almost triple, increasing from 672 million people in 2005 to nearly 1.9 billion by 2050. Today 60 per cent of older persons live in developing countries; by 2050, that proportion will increase to 80 per cent.

    In developed countries, one fifth of the population is 60 years or older; by 2050, that proportion is expected to rise to almost a third, and there will be two elderly persons for every child. In developing countries, the proportion of the older population is expected to rise from 10 per cent in 2005 to close to 20 per cent by 2050.

    There will be an even more notable increase in the number of ‘oldest-old’ people, those who are 80 years old or over, from 86 million in 2005 to 394 million in 2050. By 2050, most oldest-old people will live in the developing world. In almost all societies, women represent the largest number and proportion of older people.

    A key indicator of population ageing is the median age (the age at which 50 per cent of the population is older and 50 per cent younger). Today, just 11 developed countries have a median age of over 40. But by 2050, 90 countries will fall into that group, 46 of them in the developing world.

    UNFPA at work

    In the area of population ageing, UNFPA aims to influence public policy and promote policy dialogue to respond to the challenges posed by the social, health and economic consequences of population ageing and to meet the needs of older persons, with particular emphasis on the poor, especially women.

    The Fund supports training of policymakers and programme planners, assists countries to develop quality data on the number and characteristics of older people and supports research on the social and economic impact of population ageing. UNFPA works in partnership with the UN system and international and national non-governmental organizations.

    UNFPA collaborates with the World Health Organization on a study of the policy implications of the health of women aged 50 and over. The report will target primarily policymakers and will contain recommendations that can be used to promote equity and equality for women throughout their lives, prevent marginalization at older ages and ensure that older women remain active contributors to development.

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