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Sunday, March 3, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Demographic surprise: Many more reach 60, and rise in longevity is global

Los Angeles Times

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UNITED NATIONS — Feeling old? You're not alone. The whole world is getting older — and at a pace that has taken demographers by surprise and presented governments with economic and social challenges, the United Nations reports in a global aging study.

About 10 percent of the world's population is older than 60, and that will double by mid-century to 20 percent — marking the first time that group will outnumber children.

"This is unprecedented in human history," said Joseph Chamie, director of the U.N. Population Division, who supervised the study.

The trend is most acute in advanced industrial nations, where the working-age population is shrinking as the number of older citizens steadily increases — a development with "profound implications" in a world where fewer and fewer workers will be supporting more and more older dependents, Chamie said.

Yet, U.N. experts stress, these statistics ultimately depict a medical and socioeconomic triumph. In much of the world, increasing longevity has been matched by radically declining fertility and infant-mortality rates. Women choose the timing and frequency of childbirth in the confident expectation that their infants will thrive.

"This is great news: We are getting greater control over birth and death," Chamie said.

In Japan and Italy — now the two "oldest" countries, with a median age above 40 and climbing — nearly one-quarter of the population is older than 60, and that will pass 40 percent by 2050, the United Nations projects.

But U.N. experts say these countries aren't the demographic anomalies they once were thought to be. Nations in which the 60-plus population is expected to swell to about 40 percent in half a century include Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Sweden, Bulgaria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Armenia.

Most other developed countries aren't far behind. The exceptions are nations with many young immigrants — led by the United States, where the 16 percent of the population now older than 60 is expected to increase to 27 percent by 2050.

Worldwide, the number of people age 60 and older will more than triple, to 1.96 billion in the next 50 years, according to U.N. forecasts. That would be one-fifth of the world's predicted population.

Even in places where the median age is extraordinarily young — in most of Africa and the Middle East, only 5 percent of the population is older than 60 — U.N. demographers predict similarly stunning shifts in a generation or two.

Most striking of all, perhaps, is the expected rapid growth in the population of those 80 and older, nearly two-thirds of whom are women. Centenarians, once revered anomalies, now number about 210,000. By 2050, 3.2 million people will be 100 or older, the United Nations estimates.

This boom will produce economic strains as the group is supported either directly by families or indirectly through taxes. Today there are nine people of working age — defined by the United Nations as 15 through 65 — for every older person. That ratio will shrink to 4 to 1 in 50 years, the United Nations says. And in industrial nations, where the ratio already has dropped to 5 to 1, there will be only two working-age people for every senior citizen by 2050.

This sets the stage for conflicts over funding for social security and health care on the one hand, and schooling and unemployment benefits on the other.

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