It seems that the UN is starting to seriously consider the impacts of an ageing world population.  Last week the UN released a report entitled: Ageing in the 21st century: a celebration and a challenge

According to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, this is important:

“‘The social and economic implications of this phenomenon are profound, extending far beyond the individual older person and the immediate family, touching broader society and the global community in unprecedented ways,’ [he wrote] in the report’s preface.”

This report comes after the population of the world’s over-60s surpassed the world’s under 5 year olds (in 2000) and is expected to surpass the world’s under 15 year olds by 2050.  In ten years’ time there will be over 1 billion older people in the world (over 60 years old – hey, don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger – the UN came up with this definition).  This has come about because of declining fertility rates and increasing longevity. The authors of the report should be happy with both of these facts – haven’t we been asked since the 1970s to do something about our rampant breeding and population increase? And surely the fact that our life expectancy is increasing is a good thing?

“Life expectancy at birth has risen substantially across the world. In 2010-15, life expectancy is 78 in rich countries and 68 in poor countries. By 2045-50, newborns can expect to live to 83 in developed countries and 74 in developing countries.”

But it is only now that we are realising that if we stop having babies, then the number of old people as a proportion of the population will grow. What were people expecting? Anyway, countries are being taken by surprise:

“‘If not addressed promptly, the consequences of these issues are likely to take unprepared countries by surprise,’ said the report. ‘In many developing countries with large populations of young people, for example, the challenge is that governments have not put policies and practices in place to support their current older populations or made enough preparations for 2050.’”

What are the greatest concerns for old people? The same as the rest of us, I suppose – health and wealth:

“‘Social protection floors must be implemented in order to guarantee income security and access to essential health and social services for all older persons and provide a safety net that contributes to the postponement of disability and prevention of impoverishment in old age,’ it said.

The report pointed out that only one-third of countries have comprehensive social protection schemes, most of which only cover those in formal employment, or less than half of the economically active population worldwide.”

Of course, what isn’t entirely clear is how countries are meant to pay for “comprehensive social protection schemes” in the middle of a global economic crisis and when we aren’t conceiving commensurate numbers of future taxpayers.

There is now a divide in the UN on whether international law needs an international, legally binding convention on the rights of old people, like there is against the discrimination of women.  Laura Machado, the UN international co-ordinator for the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics, notes that:

“‘It is clear there are two groups with very different positions…The EU especially does not consider such a convention on older persons necessary, whereas the Latin American bloc wants a legally binding instrument that will pave the way for laws at the state level. It is a very important debate at the UN level.’”

Which is interesting, but one wonders, why on Earth Latin American countries don’t just implement laws at the state level? Do they need the UN go ahead for everything they do at the state level? Or are they concerned at the cost of such laws and would prefer UN backing (and funds) to help with such measures?

A final note, as a friend of mine says, when we retire (around 2055-2060) we won’t be able to rely on the government to keep us in our dotage, but will have to rely on our families. Perhaps that is the best social security policy: a loving family.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...