Aging bomb


Conspiracy theorists warn of nefarious efforts, mainly science-based, by wealthy industrialists to deliberately cut the global population, as a way of saving the planet. I don’t give much credibility to such theories as I also doubt very much if war, plague, pandemic, hunger, or whatever science-based machinations perpetrated are enough to drastically reduce the world’s population.

Fact is, with technology and developments in medical science, people are living longer. And, in many parts of the world, even slowing population growth is not making more resources available to people. In short, present circumstances do not push the argument in favor of deliberate or intentional depopulation.

It is in this light that I read with interest a recent article posted in the IMF’s Finance & Development blog by David E. Bloom and Leo M. Zucker titled “Aging is the real population bomb.” Mr. Bloom is a professor of economics and demography at Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health, while Mr. Zucker is a research assistant there. And, the pair seems to argue that aging will bring on depopulation naturally, but not necessarily for the better.

They noted that the world population has already gone beyond eight billion, growing by a billion in just 12 years. And this brings up “long-standing fears associated with rapid population growth, including food shortages, rampant unemployment, the depletion of natural resources, and unchecked environmental degradation.” But they also noted “the most formidable demographic challenge facing the world is no longer rapid population growth, but population aging.”

Messrs. Bloom and Zucker wrote, “The specter of a global population bomb has in reality been defused (or, rather, fizzled naturally). The world’s rate of population growth has slowed appreciably in recent decades and is projected to continue slowing. Even as India is projected to surpass China in 2023 to become the most populous country in the world, its average annual rate of population growth is projected at 0.7% during 2020-2040, below the global average of 0.8% and just half its 2000-2020 rate. Current UN projections also signal an increase in the number of countries experiencing annual population decline, from 41 in 2022 to 88 in 2050 (with China included throughout).”

As for COVID-19, the pair also noted the pandemic has actually “affected global population size and growth only slightly, despite an estimated 15 million direct and indirect COVID-19 — related deaths and an almost two-year decline in life expectancy worldwide during the first two years of the pandemic (UNDESA 2022).” Moreover, COVID’s “impact on fertility is uncertain,” they wrote.

“What is fast becoming universal is that population aging is the most pervasive and dominant global demographic trend, owing to declining fertility, increasing longevity, and the progression of large cohorts into older ages,” they added. And these, Bloom and Zucker wrote, “portend a colossal set of health, social, and economic challenges in the coming decades. They also signal the heretofore unlikely prospect of widespread depopulation.”

In this line, they argue that state policies, public investments, and infrastructure should thus be directed to addressing the challenges of an aging population, rather than limiting population growth. And the time to act is now, not later, as the “population age structure has changed radically over the years,” and the rise in global life expectancy is “expected to continue on [its] long-term trajectory.”

“When the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) were established, there were seven times more children under age 15 than people 65 and older; by 2050, these groups will be about the same size (Ataguba, Bloom, and Scott 2021). Between 2000 and 2050 alone, the global share of people 80 and older [rose] to almost [five] percent,” they noted.

“Addressing all these challenges [posed by aging] will require meaningful changes in lifestyle behaviors, public and private investments, institutional and policy reforms, and technological innovation and adoption. The potential consequences of inaction are dramatic: a dwindling workforce straining to support burgeoning numbers of retirees, a concomitant explosion of age-related morbidity and associated healthcare costs, and a declining quality of life among older people for lack of human, financial, and institutional resources,” Messrs. Bloom and Zucker wrote.

They also noted that “attainable goals” for governments include “improving reproductive health, equipping people with the human and physical capital they need to be productive members of society, ensuring well-functioning labor and capital markets that allow people to realize their productive potential, establishing institutions and policies that limit the burdens people place on the environment, and promoting healthy aging.”

In promoting healthy aging, vital changes that need to be put in place include “increasing physical activity” particularly for those 65 and above; and, urban planning and infrastructure investments “focused on the creation of healthy, age-friendly spaces” that emphasize better ventilation, the use of clean fuels, and access for mobility-constrained older people.

Just as important are training and skills programs that increase the productivity of underrepresented groups including older people; allowing more choice about the age of retirement; and, promoting economic sectors with opportunities for older workers. Also, governments must develop and strengthen long-term-care systems, and promote disease prevention and early detection. Crucial as well is incentivizing the further development and expansion of “technological innovations” in health and health information.

“Like the COVID-19 pandemic, population aging presents, together with its challenges, opportunities for societies to reorient and reinvigorate. The most obvious takeaway is the need for enhanced preparedness. Other hard-learned lessons of the pandemic include the need to identify gaps in the care of societies’ most vulnerable, the role of technology to connect the homebound, reevaluation of work/home life balance that could yield long-term health benefits, and a renewed focus on the importance of mental health,” Messrs. Bloom and Zucker wrote.

Scientific data already points out the challenges of an aging population, and its impact on development. The burden is now on governments to craft policies and regulation that can help address these challenges. It is not enough that we give priority, and discounts, to our seniors. The greater effort should be in skewing development towards healthier living for them as well as the rest of the population.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council