Our Aging World: Will We Honor Our Debts to the Aging?

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The perspectives that come to dominate our thinking about the aging of our population will probably say more about us as a people and about our collective character than any issue we’ve had to confront in modern times.

It doesn’t matter what data source you reference: the United Nations Report on Human Development, the World Health Organization’s World Health Survey, or its Study on Aging and Global Health. In fact, there is a virtual plethora of source material, all of which attests to the same simple fact: most countries of the world are currently experiencing a significant aging of their populations. Generally, this phenomenon has occurred at the fastest pace in the more developed countries, although some recent data suggest that the rate of population aging might be slowing just a bit in some parts of Europe. But there is no doubt about the overall trend. The world’s population is not only aging but aging rapidly. And at this very moment, the extent to which the world’s population has aged is greater than at any point in all of recorded human history. Moreover, in some parts of the world, the rate of aging has yet to reach its peak and is due to accelerate rapidly in the near future. That’s why the global aging phenomenon will profoundly impact economic, social, and political spheres for many years to come.

The reasons for the aging of our populations are many, but two factors predominate: people are living longer and healthier lives, and they are also producing fewer children. Advances in medical care, better nutrition, advanced technology, and various lifestyle habits have all made it possible for life expectancy to rise. People are also marrying much later on average (investing more time and energy in education and career development), and they are raising much smaller families when they do marry. Thus, an increasing number of countries are finding that their largest single group is individuals over 65 years of age. In fact, adults over the age of 65 already outnumber children under the age of 5, another statistic unparalleled in human history.

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The changing world population demographic presents some considerable challenges, especially to governments, and most especially with regard to the various social insurance systems and entitlements. But perhaps the greatest single challenge to us all is the manner in which we will regard the aging issue, an issue we will have to reckon with for several years to come. Already, pressures on pension and other retirement systems are prompting some to propose drastic cuts in benefits to recipients. Unique concerns face the healthcare delivery system. Non-communicable, chronic diseases common to older persons are now the most prevalent of medical conditions. Plus, older citizens are by far the largest consumers of medical services. These facts are placing a strain on healthcare resources and prompting many to question the wisdom or value of the medical safety net. Some are even beginning to question the value of treating some of the more costly and seemingly inevitable conditions that typically accompany advanced age, especially in very advanced years when life expectancy is relatively short and the quality of life is likely to be low, even if the disease is conquered.

The aging phenomenon and its consequences raises some very important social questions. Will we succumb to the increasingly tempting notion to view the needs of the elderly as simply too expensive to support in the manner we have been for the past several years? Will we respond by merely slashing services and benefits? In short, will we give in to subtle pressures to view the elderly as more of a burden on the system than a valuable resource to be preserved and cared for? The perspectives that come to dominate our thinking about these matters will probably say more about us as a people and about our collective character than any issue we’ve had to confront in modern times.

Many seniors have gone back to work full- or part-time because they find it difficult if not impossible to meet basic living expenses and pay for prescription drugs and other medical expenses solely on their pensions or other types of fixed retirement income. Some employers greatly value the work ethic and experience seniors typically bring to the workplace and reward them accordingly. Others, knowing how difficult it can be for seniors to secure sources of supplemental income, exploit their neediness and under-compensate them. But largely out of necessity, the influx of seniors into the workplace is a significant factor in the overall aging of the workforce.

The National Institute on Aging suggests that although a tremendous strain will be placed on economic systems in the next several years, there could easily be some potential benefits and dividends in the years after that, should we find a way to weather the storm. The biggest potential benefits could come as the result of a very high percentage of the population being in their peak production years, thus potentially spurring substantial economic growth. So, the only real question is how we will approach the challenges of the immediate future. Will we turn our backs on those who did so much of the work and paid most of the bills — some of whom also saved the world from tyranny, in case we have forgotten? Or will we find a way to keep our commitments, honor our debt, and lay the foundation for a new age of renewed prosperity? These are the key questions. Only time and the manner in which we both view and treat those who shouldered the burden for so long will give us the answers.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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