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International Plan of Action on Ageing

Part 1 of 4

I. Introduction

Updated Demographic Information found in the
Fourth Review and Appraisal on the implementation of the IPAA.


A. Demographic background

Only in the past few decades has the attention of national societies and the world community been drawn to the social, economic, political and scientific questions raised by the phenomenon of ageing on a massive scale. Previously, while individuals may have lived into advanced stages of life, their numbers and proportion in the total population were not high. The twentieth century, however, has witnessed in many regions of the world the control of perinatal and infant mortality, a decline in birth rates, improvements in nutrition, basic health care and the control of many infectious diseases. This combination of factors has resulted in an increasing number and proportion of persons surviving into the advanced stages of life.

In 1950, according to United Nations estimates, there were approximately 200 million persons 60 years of age and over throughout the world. By 1975, their number had increased to 350 million. United Nations projections to the year 2000 indicate that the number will increase to 590 million, and by the year 2025 to over 1,100 million; that is, an increase of 224 per cent since 1975. During this same period, the world's population as a whole is expected to increase from 4.1 billion to 8.2 billion, an increase of 102 per cent. Thus, 45 years from now the ageing will constitute 13.7 per cent of the world's population.

It should be noted, furthermore, that in 1975 slightly over half (52 per cent) of all persons aged 60 and over lived in the developing countries. By the year 2000Cowing to the differential rates of increaseCover 60 per cent of all older persons are expected to live in those countries, and it is anticipated that the proportion will reach nearly three quarters (72 per cent) by 2025.

The increase in the numbers and proportions of the ageing is accompanied by a change in the population's age structure. A declining proportion of children in a population increases the proportion of older persons. Thus, according to the United Nations projections, the population aged less than 15 years in the developing regions is expected to decline from an average of about 41 per cent of the total population in 1975 to 33 per cent in 2000 and 26 per cent in 2025. In the same regions, the population of 60 years and over is expected to increase from 6 per cent in 1975 to 7 per cent in 2000 and to 12 per cent in 2025, thus reaching the level observed in the developed regions in the 1950s. In those latter regions, the population below the age of 15 is expected to decline from 25 per cent in 1975 to 21 per cent in 2000 and to 20 per cent in 2025; however, the group aged 60 and over is expected to increase as a proportion of the total population, from 15 per cent in 1975 to 18 per cent in 2000 and 23 per cent in 2025. It should be noted that these are averages for vast regions and that considerable variations exist between countries and at the subnational level.

According to model life tables, increasing life expectancy at birth could imply an increase in life expectancies at age 60 in the developed regions of approximately one year between 1975 and 2025. In the developing regions, the projected increase would be roughly 2.5 years. Men of the age of 60 could thus expect an average of over 17 years of further life in the developed regions by 2025 and of over 16 years in the developing regions. Women could expect about an additional 21 and 18 years, respectively.

It should be noted that, if present trends prevail, the sex ratio (that is, the number of men per 100 women) will continue to be unbalanced in the developed regions with, however, a slight improvement. For instance, this rate, which in 1975 was 74 for the 60-69 age group will be 78 in 2025, with a rise from 48 to 53 for the over-80 age group. In the developing regions, this rate will be 94 in 2025 against 96 for the 60-69 age group, and 73 against 78 for the over-80 age group, signifying a slight decline. Thus, women, in most cases, will increasingly constitute a majority of the older population. Gender-based differences in longevity may have some impact on living arrangements, income, health care and other support systems.

Another important consideration is the trend in urban-rural distribution. In the developed regions, two thirds of the aged were in urban areas in 1975, and this proportion is expected to reach three quarters by the year 2000. In the developing regions, three quarters of the aged were to be found in rural areas. Nevertheless, the increase in the proportion of the ageing in urban areas in these countries could be considerable and exceed 40 per cent by the year 2000. These changes can be influenced by migration.

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B. Humanitarian and developmental aspects of ageing

The demographic trends outlined above will have significant effects on society. The achievement of sustained development requires that a proper balance be preserved between social, economic and environmental factors and changes in population growth distribution and structure. Countries should recognize and take into account their demographic trends and changes in the structure of their populations in order to optimize their development.

For this purpose a substantial financial effort will be needed on the part of Governments and the international institutions concerned. Actually however, the economic situation of most of the developing countries is such that they are unable to release the means and resources needed for carrying out their development policy successfully.

In order to enable these countries to deal with the basic needs of their population, including the elderly, it is necessary to establish a new economic order based on new international economic relations that are mutually beneficial and that will make possible a just and equitable utilization of the available wealth, resources and technology.

The present International Plan of Action on Ageing deals both with issues affecting the ageing as individuals and those relating to the ageing of the population.

The humanitarian issues relate to the specific needs of the elderly. Although the elderly share many problems and needs with the rest of the population, certain issues reflect the specific characteristics and requirements of this group. The sub-topics examined are health and nutrition, housing and environment, the family, social welfare, income security and employment, and education.

The developmental issues relate to the socio-economic implications of the ageing of the population, defined as an increase in the proportion of the ageing in the total population. Under this heading are considered, inter alia, the effects of the ageing of the population on production, consumption, savings, investment andCin turnCgeneral social and economic conditions and policies, especially at times when the dependency rate of the ageing is on the increase.

These humanitarian and developmental issues are examined with a view to the formulation of action programmes at the national, regional and international levels.

In some developing countries, the trend towards a gradual ageing of the society has not yet become prominent and may not, therefore, attract the full attention of planners and policy makers who take account of the problems of the aged in their overall economic and social development planning and action to satisfy the basic needs of the population as a whole. As outlined in the preceding section, however, United Nations projections show that:

  • A marked increase in the population over the age of 60 years is expected in the future, particularly in the segment of those aged 80 years and over;
  • In many countries, the increase in the proportion of the over-60 population is expected to become apparent over the next few decades, and especially during the first quarter of the twenty-first century; and
  • Increasingly women will constitute the majority of these elderly populations.

The issue of the ageing of populations, with its vast implications both for overall development at the national level and for the welfare and safety of older individuals, is therefore one which will concern all countries in the relatively near future; it already affects some of the more developed regions of the world.

The measures for the optimum utilization of the wisdom and expertise of elderly individuals will be considered.

The human race is characterized by a long childhood and by a long old age. Throughout history this has enabled older persons to educate the younger and pass on values to them; this role has ensured man's survival and progress. The presence of the elderly in the family home, the neighbourhood and in all forms of social life still teaches an irreplaceable lesson of humanity. Not only by his life, but indeed by his death, the older person teaches us all a lesson. Through grief the survivors come to understand that the dead do continue to participate in the human community, by the results of their labour, the works and institutions they leave behind them, and the memory of their words and deeds. This may encourage us to regard our own death with greater serenity and to grow more fully aware of the responsibilities toward future generations.

A longer life provides humans with an opportunity to examine their lives in retrospect, to correct some of their mistakes, to get closer to the truth and to achieve a different understanding of the sense and value of their actions. This may well be the more important contribution of older people to the human community. Especially at this time, after the unprecedented changes that have affected humankind in their lifetime, the reinterpretation of life-stories by the aged should help us all to achieve the urgently needed reorientation of history.

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Copyright United Nations / Division for Social Policy and Development
Last Updated: 14 March 2000.   Comments and suggestions: sidorenko@un.org