Over the last few decades, modern science, medicine, and technology have helped people to live longer than ever before. What does this mean for society? And how should we treat our elderly? We look at some of the key debates surrounding our ageing population.
What is meant by an ageing population?
An ageing population happens when the average age of a country increases. The world’s population is, on average, getting older. Just about every country is seeing an increase in the number and proportion of older people in their populations. There are usually two reasons for this:
- Rise in life expectancy. People are living longer than before. The World Health Organisation reports that life expectancy increased by six years between 2000 and 2019. This is mainly down to improvements in medical care and lifestyle changes, such as the decline in smoking.
- Decrease in fertility rates. The fertility rate is the average number of children a woman gives birth to in their lifetime. A 2020 report by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that there has been a global decrease in this number, from 4.7 in 1950 to 2.4 in 2017. This is down to a decrease in childhood deaths (leading women to have fewer babies), more access to contraception, and more women in work.
Together, these factors are expected to produce some significant changes to many societies. For example:
- In the UK in 2014, the average age of the population exceeded 40 for the first time ever. By 2040, it’s estimated that one in seven people in the country will be aged over 75.
- In the US, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060.
- In Japan, people aged 65 and over now make up nearly a quarter of the population and, in twenty years, this number will reach one-third.
What is the impact of an ageing population?
With such a clear trend emerging, it’s important to look at the possible impact an ageing population will have on our societies. There is likely to be a shift in the way we view old age, and the way we approach and plan for it. There are certainly some potential challenges:
- Healthcare. As people get older, they’re more likely to suffer from a variety of long-term illnesses. An increase in the number of old people and a lack of resources and healthcare professionals could put a strain on healthcare services.
- Work. Because people will live for longer, they’ll have to stay in the workforce for longer. Retirement ages will increase, and people will need more pension savings to live.
- Housing. The ageing population will change the demand for housing. Most likely, there will be an increase in the need for specialised housing that’s adapted for older residents.
- Infrastructure. It will be increasingly important that the ageing population remains connected to society. Issues of mobility, transport, and technology all need considering.
Clearly, there are several potential problems that our ageing societies will have to face. However, there are many positives too:
- The economy. A larger pool of workers will mean a bigger and more skilled workforce with more experience and knowledge. Technological changes will mean that people have the opportunity to keep learning. This could lead to a more productive workforce.
- The community. Older generations will be healthier and more active than ever before. This will allow them to contribute more to society, sharing their knowledge and experience with younger generations.
- The family. Family structures will likely change as people start to live longer. Older generations will be able to provide care and support for younger generations. Grandparents will be more able to care for grandchildren if they aren’t working, freeing up their children.
There’s every chance that in the future, older generations will be healthier, happier, more productive, and more valued than ever before. But for that to happen, some current attitudes must change.
According to the World Health Organisation, ‘ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age.’ Such age discrimination includes instances when people are treated unfairly because of their age and the way older people are represented in the media.
Victims of ageism often experience negative impacts on their confidence, mental health, job prospects, and financial situation.
Worryingly, ageism is a prejudice that’s more ‘normalised’ than others such as sexism or racism. A 2019 report by Ageist Britain demonstrated that over a third of people in the UK admitted to discriminating against others because of their age.
Society’s perception of old age has an impact: positive attitudes towards ageing are associated with higher levels of wellbeing, better health, and longer lives among older generations.
What can we do to help?
Here are some of the ways we can help, as individuals and as a society, to improve attitudes about age and ageing:
- Community action. To lessen the divide between ‘old people’ and ‘young people’, communities can encourage activities where people of all ages have opportunities to interact.
- Change attitudes. The media tends to spread inaccurate stereotypes about old people, like the common image of a cranky old person used as a comical character. Positive role models and portrayals in the media can change attitudes.
- Challenge behaviours. Like with any prejudiced behaviour, we can all challenge comments and attitudes that we encounter.
- Change laws.Age discrimination laws exist in some countries, but they’re often not as far-reaching as with other forms of prejudice.
- Support causes. There are many groups speaking out against ageism already. Causes such as the Global Campaign to Combat Ageism are raising awareness, and many companies are making a stand against ageism.
Good stuff from elsewhere
The Ageing Population: Effects on Healthcare
With an ageing population that continues to grow, find out more information on the potential repercussions of this on healthcare here.
The Future of an Ageing Population
Find out more about how an ageing population could affect wider society.
Check out the World Health Organisation’s piece on ageism here.