Elderly take over


MORE THAN one-fifth of the world’s population (22 per cent) will be over 60 years of age by 2050, double the current proportion, with the elderly overtaking the world’s population of children five years earlier. A new report from the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Population Ageing 2009, records that the numbers of elderly are currently expanding worldwide at an annual rate of 2.6 per cent, three times the rate of the population.

The trends are well known but the figures are a stark reminder of the need for radical thinking over the whole range of public policy issues involved, from economic growth and jobs to health, pensions and housing. Politically and culturally, big changes may also be coming down the tracks.

Courtesy of the ageing of babyboomers and gradually improving health standards and longevity, the number of people older than 60 surpassed 700 million worldwide last year and is projected to swell to two billion by 2050. And in most countries the population aged over 80 is growing faster than any other age group and will continue growing rapidly until at least 2050, indicating “a growing demand for long-term care” the report’s authors said.

In Ireland, with one of the fastest growing populations of the elderly in Europe, the challenges are as massive. The proportion of our population aged over 65 will increase by 59 per cent between 2007 and 2021, and by a further 142 per cent by 2061, according to the Government’s 2007 Green Paper on Pensions. In effect, while in 2000, for every six people of working age ostensibly generating wealth to support one pensioner, there will be just two in 2061. And the cost of paying a pension equal to a third of average industrial earnings to all over 65 will increase from almost 3 per cent of GDP in 2002 to almost 8 per cent in 2050. The cost of the health service, assuming current levels of provision, will rise from 6 per cent to 9 per cent of GDP.

The European Commission’s Ageing Working Group (AWG) projects that age-related spending in Ireland will increase by eight percentage points of GDP by 2050, with most of the rise accounted for by an increase in pension expenditure. That represents roughly some €16 billion a year at today’s prices, putting into the shade our current budgetary overrun, although growth in the economy between now and then, and a relative decline in education spending because of smaller numbers of children, will help. But there are hard choices ahead.