3 minute read

Population Aging

What Does The Future Hold—is Demography Destiny?

There are two important global trends ahead in population aging. Most noteworthy and most widely discussed is the graying of Europe, East Asia, and, to a lesser extent, North America. As of the year 2000, many countries in Europe, along with Japan and South Korea, were on the verge of depopulation, as a consequence of birth rates that have been persistently below the replacement level, and life expectancy that keeps increasing, even (or perhaps, especially) at the older ages. There is a concern about the social and economic impact of an ever-growing proportion of the population that is retired from the labor force and facing potentially debilitating health conditions associated with aging. In essence, the question is, Who will keep the economy going and support these individuals in their old age? There are several solutions. The birth rate could increase, but there are few signs that this will happen. The death rate could go up, but there is little likelihood of that. Workers could stay in the labor force longer and thus delay the economic impact of aging, but in fact the age at retirement has been going down, rather than up, over the past few decades in most rich countries. The other solution, and probably the most likely one, is for the populations of these countries to be rejuvenated by migrants from other—typically less developed—countries. The United Nations has termed this "replacement migration" (United Nations, 2000).

Migration is already serving to prop up the numbers of younger people in several European counties (especially France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), but in eastern Europe, in particular, migration would have to increase substantially to prevent depopulation and rapid aging. Japan has traditionally closed its doors to international migration, but demography could be destiny in pushing Japan to decide to allow more immigrants, such as those from the Philippines, to enter the country and become permanent residents, rather than just allowing a small number of short-term guest workers, as has been the policy for a long time. The United States and Canada, of course, are already experiencing replacement migration and for this reason neither country is on the verge of depopulation, and both have relatively low percentages of the population in the older ages, at least compared to Europe and Japan.

The other important issue for the future is the aging of the older population itself. Health technology has made significant gains in allowing people to survive stroke, heart attacks, cancer, and to live more comfortably with a variety of chronic ailments that would have incapacitated a person only a few decades ago. Although we continue to think of age sixty-five as somehow the beginning of old age, medical technology—combined with improvements in lifestyle such as less smoking and more exercise—have pushed back the age at which the average person's health noticeably slows down the pace of living and leads into eventual dependency on a caregiver. It is likely that age eighty or even beyond is closer now in the twenty-first century to what age sixty-five was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in terms of becoming decrepit and dependent—the things about aging that most younger people fear the most. This suggests that the process of population aging will push us to rethink our view about when old age actually begins.



ANDERSON, R. N. "United States Life Tables, 1997." National Vital Statistics Reports 47 (1999): 28.

COALE, A., and DEMENY, P. Regional Model Life Tables and Stable Populations. New York: Academic Press, 1983.

National Center for Health Statistics. Older Americans 2000: Key Indicators of Well-Being; Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics. Washington, D.C.: Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, 2000.

ROGERS, A. "Introduction." Elderly Migration and Population Redistribution: A Comparative Study. Edited by Andrei Rogers. London: Bellhaven Press, 1992.

United Nations. World Population Projections to 2150. New York: Population Division of the United Nations, 1998.

United Nations. Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? New York: Population Division of the United Nations, 2000.

U.S. Census Bureau. Population Projections of the United States by Age, Sex, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Nativity: 1999 to 2100. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, 2000. Available on the World Wide Web at www.census.gov

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3Population Aging - World's Oldest And Youngest Populations, Age Distribution Of A Population, Racial/ethnic Differences In Population Aging In The United States