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The Big Question: Are we the wrong age?

Updated Wednesday 1st December 2004

Medical improvements and changing birthrates could see an ever-older population relying on the support of fewer young people.

An older woman in Peru Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

In some countries there are too many old people, while in others the population is very young.

The developed world is facing up the challenges of an increasing number of elderly citizens, while some developing countries are facing the strain of populations where a third of the people are under the age of fifteen. The Big Question sent Emma Joseph to ask whether the world's population is the wrong age?

A grandfather with his granddaughter in Mongolia [Image: Arriving At The Horizon under CC-BY-NC-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon ArrivingAtTheHorizon via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
A grandfather with his granddaughter in Mongolia [Image: Arriving At The Horizon under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

Emma Joseph is joined by Professor Paul Johnson , an economic historian from the London School of Economics and Dr Tukufu Zuberi, a sociologist who is also the head of the African Census Analysis Project (ACAP) at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.

Professor Johnson told us what is happening to the world's population. In some countries it is ageing rapidly, while in other countries such as Egypt, they have the opposite problem - there are too many young people. Neither situation is ideal, but the challenge is to find ways of adapting to cope with the economic demands of differing population ages.

The challenge of a rapidly aging population is facing Western and developed nations like the United States and Japan where fertility and mortality rates have dropped drastically in recent decades. In Europe, countries like Italy and Spain are facing the problem of villages overwhelmed by elderly residents. But it's not simply people getting older: Xavier Coller, a sociologist from the University of Barcelona cycles through the Spanish countryside every weekend. He told us about a village in Spain where the population has plummeted from eight hundred people to two. The problem isn't that the population is getting old, it is literally disappearing.

The Big Question considered some of the responses to the demands of a "greying" planet. In the West some elderly people who can afford it opt for assisted living. Under this scheme, the elderly have their own apartment, extra facilities and helpers. But Professor Johnson pointed out that this option is far too expensive to be practical for everyone.

While the world as a whole is growing older, there are still some countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa where up to 50 percent of the population is under the age of 15.

Dr Tukufu Zuberi from the University of Pennsylvania is a specialist in African Demography. He argues that traditions on the continent are changing rapidly. It's no longer common place for grandparents to help raise their grandchildren, and for adults to support their families. The rapid migration from rural to urban areas by Africa's young, has led to the breakdown of the extended family. Well educated youngsters in the developing world are also going that one step further, by immigrating to richer nations in search of well paid jobs.

Dr Tukufu Zuberi told The Big Question that the many economies in Africa are not developed enough to provide any real social or economic support for children or the elderly. The only country on the entire African continent that does provide some welfare for the elderly is South Africa.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 5th June 2004

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