What to do about the “old bulge”

Abigail Watson

Old men of Portugal by Curtis Foreman (Flikr Commons)

Old men of Portugal by Curtis Foreman (Flikr Commons)

This article will outline what the “old bulge” means and suggests some ways in which the challenges it presents can be dealt with by giving old people independence and allowing them to contribute to society.

The “old bulge”

Due to falling fertility rates and higher survival of older people, the elderly are now becoming “a proportionately larger share of the total population”. People aged over 60 are currently 11% of the global population. However, by 2050 their number is expected to rise to 22% of the global population and will number two billion people. This will mean there are more old people in the world than children. While the elderly currently outnumber young children (aged 0-4), they will outnumber all children under 16 by 2047. As shown by Figure 1.


As Figure 1 shows, this rise in those over 60 will be massive compared to previous rises in the age group. In 1950 the old made up about 8% of the global population, this rose to 12% by 2014. However, in the next 35 years the percentage of the global population over 60 will have nearly doubled.

This will not affect every country equally; however in every area of the world older people will make up a bigger percentage of the population. In 2012 the population of those over 60 in Africa was 6% but by 2050 it is expected to have risen to 10%. In Latin America and the Caribbean it is expected to rise from 10% to 25%. In Asia it was 11% in 2012 and is expected to be 24% by 2050. In Oceania it is predicted to rise from 15% to 24%. In North America it is predicted to go from 19% to 27%. Finally, in Europe it was 22% in 2012 but is expected to be 34% by 2050. All over the world countries are experiences this relatively drastic change.

Ways to deal with the bulge

If these demographic changes continue to lack mainstream consideration, the challenges presented will become more problematic. Thus, this article presents some ideas (given by the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC-UK)) on how we can meet the needs of this growing group and enable them to become a contributor to society rather than the burden they are often perceived as.

First, technological improvements could make products more accessible to the old and increase their independence as well as provide financial opportunities for business. The potential of technology is presented in the ILC-UK report Opportunity Knocks which offers ideas such as a kettle that takes your heartrate and a water bottle that informs you if you are at risk of getting dehydrated. These developments are not just products to deal with the challenges of ageing but also opportunities for companies to tap into a consumer group. For example in the UK, the over 50s “hold 80% of the nation’s wealth”. Opportunity Knocks highlights many of the businesses already benefitting from considering this group. For example, OXO Good Grips products are a range of kitchen utensils designed to be easier for the elderly to use. This company benefitted from considering the needs of this consumer group.

Second, if the old could access society better they would be more independent and able to contribute. Transport is a major barrier to this. The many old people living in rural areas – 60% of the world’s old people – can become isolated by inadequate transportation, especially public transport. There are a number of improvements – many presented in ILC-UK’s The Future of Transport in an Ageing Society report – that could increase the accessibility of public transport. These include: increasing the networks so that old people do not have to walk as far to access public transport; having volunteers give “a little bit of help” to the old at stations; providing better audio-visual information across as many stations in the world as possible; using “shared cars” so that those able to drive can use old people’s cars in exchange for driving them places and using a “community transport system” (where volunteers drive the old places) in more areas. Technology can also hinder the old’s access to society. Many old people do not feel confident using technology and are sceptical of the benefits. This is not just important in the developed world, many innovations to help the developing world have been based on technology – for example VSO texted lesson plans to teachers in Papa New Guinea. Age UK set up a silver surfer service,  for the old to learn about computers. These classes could be made more widespread and could be used in the developing world to show the old how to use mobile phones.

Attitudes and unawareness of the “old bulge” are the big barriers to dealing with the challenges of an ageing population. The old are often seen as useless and “marginal to the broader efforts to achieve economic and social development”. People are also unaware of the rising population of old people in the world. As Roles (2014) notes “to listen to most discussions about international development, you could … [think]… it was only younger people who mattered”. As a result the needs of the old are unmet. For example, by 2020 non-communicable disease will be one of the three main causes of “the global burden of disease in developing and newly industrialised countries”. Yet, a continued ignorance of the health needs of the old has meant “little effort is made to make health care ‘age friendly’”. Thus, while life expectancy continues to increase healthy life expectancy is progressing at a much slower rate.

There needs to be a greater awareness of the “old bulge” and people need to see it as something positive. As Gorman (2014) notes, “we need to see ageing not as a burden but as a triumph of development, with older people not being a problem but a part of possible solutions.” As noted earlier, they a powerful consumer group and, as I noted in another article, they provide many things to their families, communities and in times of disaster. This needs to be recognised in mainstream considerations regarding development, health and other all future policy decisions.

This article cannot capture all the possible solutions that the ageing population presents. It only hopes to highlight some of them to start the debate.

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