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The Globalization of Old Age

Anti-globalization campaigners gripe that the rich are getting richer. That's true in many ways. But rich countries are also getting older. This "graying" of the world's richest nations will profoundly affect not only these societies, but poorer countries as well.

According to the UN, the world's population now stands at 6.3 billion and will reach 9.3 billion by mid-century. People aged 60 or more are projected to increase from 629 million now to nearly 2 billion by 2050. Furthermore, the elderly population itself is aging. The 80+ age group makes up the fastest-growing segment of the population; its share of the over-60 population will increase from 12% to 19% by 2050.

This "graying of the world" is a natural result of falling fertility rates and rising life expectancy. While the decline in fertility is global, its speed varies across countries. Rich countries in Europe, North America, and East Asia have a sharply higher share of the elderly than developing countries. Fertility reductions in the richer parts of the world have already brought population growth rates close to zero.

Furthermore, due to improved access to quality health care and better living conditions, life spans in rich countries are now much longer than in the developing world. People aged 60 or more represent almost 20% of the population in rich countries today, whereas in the world as a whole this ratio is not expected to be reached before 2050. By that point, this age group in industrial countries will claim one-third of the total population. It will take another century for the rest of the world to catch up.