Global greying

Global greying

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Last month, a group of charities warned that the government is unprepared for the impact of an ageing population, echoing a similar statement from the House of Lords earlier this year.

It is certainly true that the average age of the UK population is rising. You only have to look at the census data to see that the proportion of the population over 60 has increased over the last 40 years and is set to carry on increasing for the next few decades.

This is sometimes presented, especially by those on the right, as a birth rate problem. Charles Moore recently blamed a combination of contraception, homosexuality and hippie baby-boomers for reducing the birth rate and landing us in this economic & demographic mess. 

Others, usually on the left or the very free-market right, call for more immigration to rebalance our population profile. It’s the same solution by a different method  – get more young people.

But those who blame falling birth rates are looking at the wrong end of the population pyramid. The ageing population has come about because the top of the pyramid has grown, not because the bottom has shrunk. Thanks to better diets, healthcare, education and old age pensions, a lot of people are living past 70 and on into their 80s and 90s. 

For most of human history, population profiles have been pyramid-shaped. A lot of babies were born, many didn’t survive beyond their 5th birthdays and, as time went on, famine, disease, accidents, war and over-work killed off more and more of each five year cohort. Only a tiny number of very rich or very lucky people lived beyond eighty.

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But, if the top of the pyramid grows, then the bottom has to grow by even more, or it won’t look like a pyramid any more. Therefore, if the number of older people increases, to maintain a traditional age profile, the number of young people has to increase by a lot more.

Last time the UK population looked roughly pyramid-shaped was 1971.

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Since then, the number of people over 60 has risen both numerically and as a proportion of the population. 

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Given the number of old people in the UK, we would now need a population of around 80m to have maintained the ratios we had in the 1970s.

 As more people live longer, the challenge becomes greater. To have a 1970s population profile in 2031, we will need to have a 115 million people in the UK. Just to keep it at its 2011 level would need an increase to 80 million, around 10 percent more than projected.

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This presents us with a dilemma. If we want to reduce our dependency ratio, unless we start killing off old people, we need a bigger population. This means more pressure on housing and almost certainly more immigration. People say they are worried about our falling birthrate but they complain far more about immigration and Britain being ‘concreted over’ to provide more housing.

In any case, it would take a lot of babies or a lot of immigration to counter the rising dependency ratios. Sooner or later, we will have to get used to the idea that the proportion of over 60s in our population will be somewhere between 25 and 30 percent by 2050.

Not that this situation is unique to the UK or to the advanced economies. The ageing society is often presented as a western problem but that is only because Europe and North America are slightly ahead of a global trend. 

Over the next 40 years, many of the emerging economies will catch up.  Furthermore, just as they developed at a faster rate than the advanced economies, so, too, they will age at a faster rate.  According to UN projections, many countries which currently have young age profiles will, by the middle of this century, have a similar proportion of over 60s to the UK. Some, like Iran and Vietnam, will even overtake us. 

Percentage of Population Over 60

Selected countries – 2012 and projected increase to 2050

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Source: United Nations

Ageing populations are worrying governments from Malaysia to Mozambique. By 2050, outside Africa, there will be few countries with less than 25 percent of their populations under 60. Or, to put it another way, in 40 years time, most countries will have an older age profile than Britain has now. 

Even Africa, says the UN, will have a similar age profile to Europe by the end of the century as it, too, follows the global trend. 

Population by age groups and sex – Europe (percentage of total population)

Source: United Nations


Population by age groups and sex – Africa (percentage of total population)


Source: United Nations

If the UN is right, as the century goes on, countries’ demographic profiles will shift from the traditional pyramid shape to one that looks more like a beehive, with a more even split between age cohorts and a much higher proportion of the population aged over 60.

Against this background, then, higher immigration will only be a short-term solution to our demographic challenges. If the rest of the world is ageing too, young people will become a scarce resource.

Both the increased fertility and the high immigration approaches to our demographic challenges have a whiff of middle-aged desperation about them. As with old men who take younger lovers or potions to hold back the tide of age, they are doomed attempts to capture a lost youthfulness. And, if the demographers’ projections are right, that youthfulness is fading fast.

The human race is about to embark on a great experiment. For most of human history, only a tiny proportion of people survived into their 60s. By the middle of this century, the over 60s will be more than 20 percent of the world’s population.  We will need some clever thinking to deal with it and many of our age-old assumptions will have to change. Whatever we come up with, it will need to be a lot better than just trying to nick each others kids.  


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