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Elderly People, Crisis, and Robots

HSE researchers peer into the future in an attempt to predict how the impending challenge of global population ageing could reshape the world as we know it


Across the globe, countries are witnessing dramatic shifts in the relative proportions of younger and older generations in their demographic makeup. Even in African states, signs of an emerging demographic decline are becoming evident. By 2050, two thirds of people aged 65 and over will be living in low- and middle-income countries. While an ageing population poses a significant challenge to national economies, it can also serve as an impetus for development, especially in the realm of technology. What is the extent of global population ageing, what challenges arise in this context, and whether humanity is capable of addressing them are some of the key questions, explored by IQ.HSE, based on a paper published in Sociological Journal by Leonid GrininAnton Grinin, and Andrey Korotayev at the HSE Centre for Stability and Risk Analysis.

A Global Scale Issue

Population ageing, coupled with declining fertility rates and increasing life expectancy (LE), is a well-known issue. Despite efforts made at various levels to address it, the ageing problem, according to the researchers, is not receiving sufficient attention, and even academic publications on the topic are scarce.

The authors of the paper emphasise that global population ageing will emerge as the most significant process and factor in the 21st century, likely extending into the first decades of the 22nd century. Society needs to adapt to these circumstances. While outlining the negative consequences associated with population ageing, HSE researchers also propose examining the issue from a positive perspective: are there potential benefits that this process can bring to the world, and if so, what conditions are necessary for this to happen?

By 2100, according to the most recent projection by the United Nations, 2.47 billion people, or more than a quarter of the global population, will be aged 65 and over, but only 2.3 billion will be under the age of 20. The number of over 80-year-olds will increase sixfold from approximately 140 million in 2017 to more than 960 million by the end of the 21st century. 'Consequently, the global ratio of individuals aged 80 and over to those aged 15 and under is projected to soar from 0.16 in 2017 to 1.50 in 2100,' according to the authors.

The 22nd century may appear to be far into the future, but even today, global population ageing has a direct impact on political, economic, and social processes, while demographic forecasts unanimously predict a significant ageing of the world's population in the upcoming decades.

Currently, the proportion of people aged 65 and older is 20% or higher in 22 countries and territories, primarily in Southern and Eastern Europe. Japan leads this trend, with 28.4% of its citizens aged 65 and older, and those aged 80 and older constituting 10.2%. In several countries, the proportion of those aged 80 and over exceeds 6%, and it is anticipated that between 2021 and 2050, the global population of over 80 year-olds will triple, reaching 458 million.

The researchers highlight the fact that the number of people aged 60 years and older has already outnumbered children younger than 5 years, according to WHO. The growth rate of the proportion of older people (60+) is several times higher than the overall population growth rate worldwide. By 2050, approximately 34% of the population aged 60 and over will be living in Europe and around 25% in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Asia. 'It is deeply concerning that by 2050, there will be nearly twice as many people aged 60 years and older (2.132 billion) as there will be young people in the 15-24 age group,' according to the researchers.

Although 2050 may not appear as near future either, hugely significant shifts could already be occurring by 2030. 'In 2030, the proportion of the population aged 65 years and older will stand at 20% or more in 59 countries/territories worldwide, while those aged 60 years and over will constitute one-sixth (16.6%) of the planet's inhabitants,' states the paper.

Challenges Associated with Ageing

The ongoing global ageing process and the increase in life expectancy, if sustained, are expected to bring about substantial changes in the social and political spheres, according to the researchers. However, contemporary society is largely unprepared for such changes; therefore, the growing trends may provoke significant tensions and conflicts.

The impact of global ageing on socio-economic development will be observed across various spheres. First, there will be implications for the labour market. On one hand, the experience and higher degree ofjob matching among older workers could, in a sense, represent potential benefits of an ageing workforce. On the other hand, global ageing has a tendency to impede both the innovation process and the retraining of older workers, as well as the potential for increasing labour productivity. Workforce mobility also declines due to ageing, while a substantial reduction in the number of hours worked could affect the pace of economic growth. According to the researchers, the most significant impact is linked to a substantial reduction in the supply of labour.

They also highlight the absence of active discussions on the impending pension crisis, which is the central challenge caused by population ageing for the welfare state. 'The pension crisis will be particularly pronounced in the event of significant collapses in the securities markets where pension funds are invested, as well as the potential default by the state. Funds invested in the public debts of developed countries essentially constitute money already spent or consumed,' the authors argue. In their view, the pension system, combined with a sluggish pace of economic growth and an impending debt crisis, becomes hostage to the overall economic situation.

Separately, the researchers underscore the challenge of caring for frail elderly family members and its economic component. The majority of elderly individuals in need of care are living within families, and this holds true for all countries, including developed ones. 'In OECD countries, around 10% of adults provide long-term care for the elderly at home. This is a very high proportion. Specifically, in the United States, as of 2009, at least 43.5 million people aged 18 and over (19% of adults) were providing unpaid care for an elderly family member or friend,' the paper states.

The primary burden of caring for the elderly falls on women (67%). Their average age, according to availablesources, is 50 years old, and they dedicate nearly 20 hours a week to providing care. 'In Japan in 2012, women aged 50 to 65 comprised the largest group of individuals who left or changed their jobs to care for their parents,' according to the researchers. This leads to overall losses associated with the non-participation of a significant number of women in the workforce, as well as various types of inequalities.

Another issue related to population ageing is ageism, which refers to age-based discrimination affecting various aspects. It may manifest itself in situations where younger employees are favoured in hiring, despite having minimal work experience compared to their older colleagues.

Certain threats arising in the context of population ageing could potentially disrupt the systemic world order, such as confrontation between 'young' and 'old' states. Democracy is also in danger due to population ageing, and there is a risk of society's bias towards gerontocracy, the researchers note.

Ageing and Technological Progress

Increased life expectancy is becoming more reliant on the advancement of medical, biotechnological, and other technological trends. According to a number of authors, the final phase of the Cybernetic Revolution will begin in the 2030s. The outcome of significant technological breakthroughs is expected to be the development and widespread implementation of self-regulating systems.

'Our study demonstrates that during the Cybernetic Revolution in the 2030s - 2060s, ageing will stimulate technological progress, because labour-saving technologies will be necessary due to a shortage of labour resources, and there will be technological breakthroughs in medicine aimed at extending the working age and improving the quality of biological life for the elderly,' the authors explain.

According to their viewpoint, adapting to population ageing would not be possible without intensive development of technologies, which, aside from combating diseases, should aim to simplify life for the elderly, decrease caregiving costs, and enable greater participation of the elderly in the labour market. Therefore, global ageing can serve as a crucial driver of technological breakthroughs, although its positive role in this regard has yet to be fully appreciated.

Technological development, however, not only makes life easier but also poses threats to individual freedom, dignity, privacy, and comfort, the researchers note. 'This is particularly true for the elderly, who tend to be psychologically vulnerable. Therefore, adaptation to ageing also requires aligning technological innovations with the principles that govern a free society. However, this can pose a challenge that is keenly felt today, leading to social protests,' the paper states.

Global Ageing Calls for Social Innovation

Coping with the processes of global population ageing requires more than just technological progress. Profound changes in society, including social innovations—new ideas, approaches, and more, contributing to meeting social needs—should also be integrated firmly into the fabric of society. ‘In developing countries, this process may initially be propelled by the diffusion of existing technologies from developed countries, but it will soon decelerate unless new breakthrough innovations emerge,' the researchers emphasise.

They argue that one positive outcome of population ageing may involve an increased support for pro-social values globally. Older people should also be empowered to self-organise, with the healthier and more active among them assisting other members of their communities.

Among other positive aspects of global ageing, the authors emphasise the opportunity for older people, who now live much longer than before, to apply their unique life experience and professional expertise. With the advancement of medicine and technology, older people will be able to work productively for an extended period, thereby contributing economic benefits to society.

Study authors:
Leonid Grinin, Chief Research Fellow, Centre for Stability and Risk Analysis, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences
Anton Grinin, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Stability and Risk Analysis, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences
Andrey Korotayev, Director, Centre for Stability and Risk Analysis, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences
Author: Marina Selina, February 01