The world’s population reached 8bn people on Tuesday and will hit 9bn in 15 years as it experiences an unprecedented surge in the number of older people, according to the latest UN data.
The global fertility rate has more than halved since the 1950s to 2.3 births per woman. With mortality also falling, the number of people aged 65 and over is expected to rise from 783mn in 2022 to 1bn by 2030 and reach 1.4bn by 2043, the UN population data revealed.
This increase of 623mn in 20 years compares with the seven decades it took for the population of over-65s to increase by 651mn to its current total. The overall global population is set to peak at 10.4bn in the 2080s.
In contrast, the number of people under the age of 15 is thought to have peaked last year at 2bn while the share of those aged 15 to 64, traditionally considered the working age, is falling.
“The coming decades will be marked by a rapid increase in the number of older persons, as the large cohorts born in the middle of the last century grow older,” said Sara Hertog, a UN population affairs officer.
The global median age has increased about eight years to 30 since 1950, and is set to rise to 36 by 2050, a figure that jumps to over 50 in east Asia and southern Europe, UN data show.
Population ageing is “a triumph of development efforts”, said Norbert Meiners, professor at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. People are living longer because of improved nutrition, medical advances, sanitation, healthcare, education and economic progress, he said.
Ageing, not population growth, is “the most important demographic change of this century,” said Michael Hodin, executive director of the Global Coalition on Ageing.
Ageing is a major challenge for societies and economies because it adds strain on fiscal revenues and healthcare spending. The number of people aged 80, those more closely associated with health problems, rose to more than 150mn this year. This is more than double the figure 20 years ago.
In response to this, many countries have started increasing the state retirement age from 65.
Without further policy action — from childcare support to healthcare provision, the declining share of the working age population in advanced economies is “expected to drag down growth and living standards”, said Shruti Singh, economist at the OECD Centre for Opportunity of Equality.
Hodin added that nations’ healthcare systems also need to shift focus to earlier detection and prevention or “we won’t be able to afford anything”.
About 30 per cent of Japan’s population is aged 65 and over, while in Europe the proportion is 20 per cent, double the global average and the highest of any continent. For Europe and North America, the UN’s Hertog said, all future population growth to 2050 is likely to occur among older people.
While still younger overall, developing countries in Latin America and Asia are now ageing faster than developed ones.
The largest increase in the number of people aged over 65 across the world between now and 2050 is projected for East and south-east Asia, accounting for more than one-third of the global rise, according to the UN.
For Latin America and the Caribbean, the share of the population aged 65 years and over could more than double from 9 per cent in 2022 to 19 per cent in 2050.
However, some experts said the concerns over ageing were exaggerated, partly because of an outdated definition of older people.
“Most people in their 60s who are educated are very able to contribute to modern economies,” said Sarah Harper, professor of gerontology at Oxford university.
Indeed, the mortality rate — the number of deaths in an age group per 1,000 population in the same age group — of those aged 65 to 69 years old in 1950 was higher than those aged 75 to 79 years today, according to UN data.
People are living healthier lives for longer across the globe, according to World Health Organization data. A rising share of older people are in work, according to the OECD, even though employment rates in most countries still drop significantly with age from people’s early 60s.
With many people in their 60s working and contributing to the economy and society, “the important factor is good health in later life”, said Harper. “If we can maintain that then the demographic challenge is reduced.”