We are living in the midst of an unprecedented transition, sometimes called the “agequake.” By 2050, the number of older persons in the world will exceed the number of young for the first time in history. As the twenty-first century began, the world’s population included approximately 600 million older people, triple the number recorded fifty years earlier. By mid-century, there will be some two billion elderly—once again a tripling of the age group in a span of fifty years.
Will societies have the resources to pay for the increased needs of older people, particularly when the number of working young is diminishing? In the developed countries, national wealth has increased along with the increase in aging. The under-developed countries will reach their agequake before their wealth increases. Over the years, the United Nations has recognized this trend and has explored the many issues it raises. Every October, the UN celebrates the Day of Older Persons. Two major world conferences on aging have been held, one in 1982 and one more recently in 2002. The 1982 conference mostly concerned the richer countries where the aging had begun. There, the issues were discussed in terms of caring for the welfare of older persons. At the 2002 conference, the emphasis was on mainstreaming the older people, using their skills as a treasured resource. The approach was intergenerational, avoiding age stratification into youth groups and elder enclaves. By building bridges between generations, the model is a society for all ages.
The facts are simple. In most countries, people are having fewer children, and people are living longer. However, because of the explosive birth rate of the past, some societies are going through a massive youth bulge, with more than half the population under twenty-five—in Saudi Arabia 62 percent, Yemen 68 percent, and Iran 60 percent. Many young people are becoming restless without productive work. They present a major and growing political problem.
At the annual celebration of the International Day of Older Persons, the emphasis was on healthy, active aging, education for all ages, human rights, and dignity. We have added years to our lives. What kind of life will we add to these years?
Sylvain and Phyllis Ehrenfeld have represented humanist organizations before the United Nations. This article is adapted from one that appeared in the February 2004 International Humanist News.