Written by Stannah 21-11-2018

Aging Population: On the Verge of an Unprecedented Demographic Shift

Aging population: demographic shift

The world’s aging population will represent a unique demographic shift in human history.

The aging population isn’t a national phenomenon. It’s happening on a global scale. People are living longer, and the world has undergone a considerable number of radical changes. Industrialization and urbanization had a major impact on these changes, since most of the world’s population now lives in cities. Improvements in nutrition, sanitation, medical advances, health care, education and economic well-being during the 20th century have also played a major role, leading to what is happening now. And while it is a more prevalent phenomenon in developed countries, life expectancy has also been increasing gradually in some developing countries since 1980.

What challenges and opportunities will come with this unique social transformation?


Table of contents

Aging population: what does it mean to a globalized world?

Health in later life in the Global Era

Time and Money in later life

Active aging: a global agenda?


Aging population: what does it mean to a globalized world?

Aging population: what does it mean to a globalized world?

To better understand the impact of globalization on the lives of older people, we need to first understand the meaning of the term “globalization”. “Globalization” is a buzzword and a multidimensional phenomenon so there’s no consensus about how to define it. Nevertheless, a possible definition of Globalization would be a global phenomenon in which we are all:

“(…) caught up in the global economic flows of trade and investment that encircle the world and bind countries together as part of a global market.” ((Hyde and Higgs, 2017, p.1)


Therefore, it is primarily an economic process that integrates social, cultural and technological aspects involving goods and services. And we cannot understand social change unless we analyze it in the context of globalization.


“The present population has, on average, the longest life expectancy and the greatest proportion of older people in history. At the same time these changes have been accompanied by a greater global interconnectedness between nations, regions and even cities and towns.” (Hyde and Higgs, 2017, p.3)


These are not simple dynamics to explain it, because globalization operates on many different levels. But generally speaking, countries are bound together as part of a global market. Transport has also contributed to shrinking the world around us. Global processes are having an undeniable effect on the experiences of aging and old age (Hyde and Higgs, 2017, p.6), and fundamental reforms must take place so that each nation can face these challenges.

The entire world is aging because of a variety of other factors, including declining fertility rates, longer life expectancies, urbanization and changes to family and social life. But underneath these factors lies the triumph of development. Some people may argue that global aging poses significant challenges to the welfare, pension and healthcare systems of developed and developing countries. The fact is that in 30 or 40 years, the elderly, retired population will vastly outnumber working-age people.

But what could be the positive outlook or the opportunity for future generations in this globalized world?

Nation states decide about pensions and health care, but now they face a historically unprecedented socio-demographic reality.  There are still doubts about the long-term effects of an aging population, but decisions have to be made as soon as possible.

This can already be seen in certain policies that have been introduced in some developed countries. Policies that have shifted the focus on dependency to a more healthy and positive perspective on aging. This is where the challenge is! Breaking with old-fashioned views on retirement and old-age and looking forwards to active aging.

To be better understand how did we get to this scenario, let’s look at the following subtitles:

ging and later life in the 20th century:

Chris Phillipson once wrote in “Capitalism and the Construction of Capitalism” (1982), that the need for capitalism emerged to control the entire labor process through the taylorist production efficiency methodology (Phillipson, apud Hyde & Higgs, p. 20). As part of this new paradigm in the early the 20th century, the relationships between social structure, individual socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, life course and the state started to form at the roots of the political economy. And as a result, retirement was also included in this structure, both as a process and a status. In other words, retirement started to be a functional response to older age for both the individual and society.

Workers would withdraw from employment, freeing up the labor market for younger workers without any feelings of shame or inadequacy (Hyde & Higgs, p.13). This theory from the early 60s went hand in hand with the notion that the course of life is divided into periods and that each period has its specific requirements. The age stratification approach assumes that individuals go through successive stages leading to later life, corresponding to the familiar pattern of the “three model box” (Dannefer and Setter, 2010, apud Hyde & Higgs, p. 15).

  • Education
  • Employment
  • Retirement

This opened the debate about the shift away from the provision of care for older people by their family, to care by the state. Because there was, in fact, a structured dependency of old people on the state. Townsend pointed out three key policies that were responsible for this structural dependency:

  • Retirement
  • Pensions
  • Residential care

Also, Townsend states that this shift was a tragedy for older people, and lead to the deterioration of the status of older people (Townsend, 1981, apud Hyde & Higgs, p. 17) as families were not held responsible for older people’s well-being anymore.


Aging and later life in the 21st century

What really stands out in late modernity is the greater reflexivity and individualization of western populations as well as a continuity of the period of identity crises for older people, as they were left to the care of the state.

According to Phillipson (2003):

“Globalisation… has produced a distinctive stage in the social history of ageing, with a growing tension between nation-state based solutions (and anxieties) about growing old and those formulated by global actors and institutions. Ageing can no longer be viewed as a ‘national’ problem or issue but one that affects trans-national agencies and communities.” (apud Hyde & Higgs, p.29)

But in the 21st century, the trend to de-institutionalize retirement is now taking the burden of responsibility for well-being in later life from the state and placing it on the individual (Hyde & Higgs, p.24).

Apart from this, Bowling (2005, 2006, apud Hyde & Higgs, p. 24) describes the contemporary trends and concepts of “healthy ageing” and “successful ageing” as new forms of ageism, meaning that instead of only having the fear of getting old, people now fear getting old with a disability, as this is being painted as the sole responsibility of the individual.

Therefore, the emphasis on choice, autonomy, activity and productivity means reducing future welfare expenditure, instead of promoting positive ageing.

Furthermore, some critical gerontologists such as Westerhof and Tulle (2007, apud Hyde & Higgs, p. 25) reject the master status of chronological age. This opens the concept of subjective age. As individuals entering old age are healthier, wealthier and more active than their predecessors, traditional images of old age as a period of decline are being replaced by more positive images. Now, the transition to old age is more fluid than ever.

Health in later life in the Global Era

Health in later life in the global era


Understanding how the health of the world’s older population is evolving is a major concern, as it will influence policies adopted to ensure the viability of the present and future welfare system.

The health of older people has been improving for a considerable time now, contradicting the assumption that aging will inevitably lead to poorer health, higher rates of mortality and/or disability. All in all, it has been a gain not only in life expectancy, but more importantly, in healthy life expectancy. As Hyde & Higgs (2017, p.61) put it, health is becoming more detached from age, thus shedding a different light on the meaning and the nature of later life.

And what about older people in the developing world? Although we know urbanization is playing an important role in drawing people away from rural communities where older people are often unable to access or afford medical treatments. But in the long-term, we may see evidence that the health of older people in developing countries will slowly improve as well.


According to the World Health Organization (2015), there is a clear association between the level of economic development and the risk of death at different stages in life.

In 2015, based on the UN’s World Populations Prospects, the life expectancy of people over 65 is increasing very slowly in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East & North Africa, and more considerably in the rest of world. But as the map below shows, there is a close correlation between life expectancy and the total expenditure on health of each region of the world.


World Health Organization: Total expenditure on health as a percentage of the gross domestic product - 2011


Some regions, like South and East Asia (excluding Japan) and Central Africa spend proportionally little on healthcare. On the other hand, countries like the USA and France are spending more than 10% of their GDP (Gross Domestic Product) on healthcare. Canada, Europe and Central Asia also have a high percentage of spending on healthcare.

There is no global convergence in healthcare spending. However, there is also no evidence of a reduction of public spending on healthcare as countries become more open to globalization.


Time and Money in later life

Time and money in later life

It is a well-known idea that throughout history old age has been synonymous with poor health, morbidity and mortality. Therefore, any break in this association would be crucial to create a positive narrative of later life. This has to happen, since the changing patterns of health and life expectancy demand a re-evaluation of the association between older age and poor health.

It is therefore important to understand the different ways in which economics and later life interact in the context of globalization. The institutionalization of the life we knew from the 20th century meant that retirement became the dominant aspect through which old age was understood, mainly as being dependent on the nation’s welfare state.

However, over the last 5 or 10 years, a significant number of governments across the most prosperous nations have thought to reverse this trend and are changing policies to extend working life. This raises many questions about how the current and future generations of older adults will manage their long careers.

It is undeniable that the second decade of the 21st century will see a set of “active ageing” policies implemented, that will have to result in a more complex set of new labor positions, such as: bridge jobs, un-retirement, partial retirement, blended careers and encore careers.

But whatever the global trend is, according to Hyde and Higgs (2017, p.97), national governments still have some power to determine the nature of their pension systems, while maintaining an open economy.

There have undoubtedly been changes, and in a number of European and North American countries, later life has been less associated with poverty. On the other hand, in developing countries, later life is still haunted by the risk of poverty.


Active aging: a global agenda?

Active aging: global agenda

The global rise in life expectancy challenges the conventional narratives of the course our lives will take. This is true for Western Europe, North America and Japan, but we must bear in mind that this does not apply to all countries in the same way. Nevertheless, the number of countries in which people can expect to live into their 70s increased in the late 20th century.

Therefore, stronger welfare systems and social safety-net programs are needed to help cushion the aging population. The elderly are very important to our society and must not be marginalized. They have much to offer and global active aging policies should also help the elderly engage with young people, especially by creating conditions that allow an expanding retirement age to be possible, but also to have enough jobs to absorb new labor markets entrants. If active aging is really going to be part of a global agenda, there will be a positive scenario over the next 20 or 30 years, where older people will regain their status as active agents in the development of a better society.


Further Reading:

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP.241. [https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/publications/files/key_findings_wpp_2015.pdf]

Hyde, M., Higgs, P, (2017), Ageing and Globalisation, from the series “Ageing in a Global Context”, Policy Press, University of Bristol. [https://policypress.co.uk/ageing-and-globalisation]