For the first time in history, by the year 2050 people over 60 will outnumber children under the age of 15.  Is the world ready for this massive demographic change?  A recently released United Nations report suggests not. 

The global study ranks the social and economic well-being of the elderly in 91 countries and is the first time such a study has been undertaken. 

Many advocates for the elderly feel that people simply don’t recognise that an ageing population is such a pressing issue, and hence adequate data is not collected.  This study, created in partnership by elder advocacy group HelpAge International and the United Nations Population Fund, aims to remedy that.

The findings show that ageing is indeed an issue everywhere in the world and that overall the ageing population is not well provided for.  To create what they have called the “Global AgeWatch Index 2013” researchers used 13 different indicators, including income and employment, health provision, education, and environment. Based on these indicators, the elderly in Sweden came off best and the elderly in Afghanistan the worst.

Perhaps surprisingly, the report shows that the fastest ageing countries are developing ones, such as Jordan, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua and Vietnam, where the number of older people will more than triple by 2050. It is therefore concerning that every one of those countries ranked in the bottom half of the index.

For the countries down the bottom of the index, sadly, growing old can come as a mixed blessing.  This report from the Associated Press comments that:

Afghanistan, for example, offers no pension to those not in the government. Life expectancy is 59 years for men and 61 for women, compared to a global average of 68 for men and 72 for women, according to U.N. data.

That leaves Abdul Wasay struggling to survive.  At 75, the former cook and blacksmith spends most of his day trying to sell toothbrushes and toothpaste on a busy street corner in Kabul’s main market…He says many older people cannot find work because they are not strong enough to do day labor, and some resort to begging.

“You have to keep working no matter how old you are – no one is rich enough to stop,” he says. “Life is very difficult.”

Many governments have resisted tackling the issue partly because it is viewed as hugely complicated, negative and costly – which is not necessarily true, says Silvia Stefanoni, chief executive of HelpAge International.


Not surprisingly, the Index shows that people in countries with a record of enacting progressive social welfare policies for all their citizens across their whole lives are more likely to  reap the benefits in terms of better health and wellbeing and a sense of social connectedness in old age.

The message seems to be that planning now is the key for all countries if the elderly are to continue to be well cared for as they increase in number.  However, if developing countries are going to be the worst hit, it certainly seems that they might need some help.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...