Judging by headlines on the U.S.'s and Europe's retirement crisis, you'd think the specter of aging populations plagued only rich countries. But a top French demographer says that developing nations will actually be the hardest hit by the gray wave.
Experts have long warned about the confluence of two trends in the industrialized world: an aging boomer population, which will strain social-security systems; and falling birthrates, which will cause a dearth of able-bodied workers to support the elderly. Anxiety over these issues crops up regularly in Western politics, most recently in the American health-care debate, where alarmist cries about unplugging Grandma to save money mirror an underlying truth: there will be many grandmas, and they will require expensive care. And the U.S. is far less gray than countries such as Italy, Germany, and Japan, where more than 20 percent of the people are already over 65. By contrast, the developing world is seen as a wellspring of high birthrates and a replenishable supply of young workers.
But a recent study by Gilles Pison, of the French National Institute of Demographic Studies, says that developing nations are also staring down the barrel of an aging crisis--albeit one that's slightly further off. While Asian and African populations are younger for now, Pison says, many developing countries are starting to experience the same combination of declining mortality and falling birthrates--only at a much, much faster pace.
Take France and China. France halved its fertility rate from five to 2.5 over a span of 150 years (from 1760 to 1910). The same change in China took only 12 years, from 1972 to 1984. Even in countries without a one-child policy, birthrates are slowing at a remarkable rate. In 1984, Iranian women had, on average, seven children; in 2006, they had 1.9. At the same time, elderly populations are burgeoning. It took 114 years for France's over-65 set to double, from 7 to 14 percent of its populace. It's taken 71 years to double in the United States. But that transition will happen in 20 years in Iran and Tunisia, and only 17 in Vietnam and Syria.
While developed countries have had generations to build up and tweak their institutional safety nets for aging populations, the developing world is much less prepared--and they have less time to get it right. As family support structures erode, Pison says, there aren't the pension systems to pick up the slack. The good news is, for a few more decades at least, the proportion of working-age adults in developing countries is larger than ever before--an opportunity they must seize to the fullest to prepare for their graying future.