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The Myth of the “Aging Society”

For the past two centuries, governments have approached demographic issues with the assumption that calendar years are an objective indicator of age. But with a rapid increase in lifespans over the past few decades, age is not what it used to be, and unless public policy reflects that fact, the dividends of longevity may be squandered.

LONDON – Economic doomsayers have long warned that the aging populations of industrial and post-industrial countries represent a “demographic time bomb.” Societal aging is bad news for the economy, they say, because it means that fewer people work and contribute to economic growth, and more people collect pensions and demand health care.

The United Nations estimates that between now and 2050, the share of the population aged 60 and older will increase in every country. Though life expectancy tends to be highest in advanced economies, it is growing fastest in emerging markets. The number of people aged 60 and over in developing countries is currently twice that of the developed world. And the UN expects a three-to-one ratio by 2030, and a four-to-one ratio by 2050.

Within many countries, increased life expectancy and declining birth rates are pushing up the average age of the population. In Japan, the median age has risen from 26 in 1952 to 46 today. In China, it has risen from 24 to 37 over the same period, and is expected to reach 48 by 2050.