Older people also deserve to not be 'left behind'

HelpAge community nurse Marie-Lourdes Etienne with Diliane Charles in Haiti. Older people should also be part of the post-2015 agenda. Photo by: Frédéric Dupoux / HelpAge International

The unprecedented rate of global population aging presents policymakers with a challenge.

As the 2014 Global AgeWatch Index published last week reveals, life expectancy continues to rise in many countries, so governments need to act now to stand a better chance of meeting the needs of their growing older populations.

The proportion of the world’s over-60s is set to rise from nearly 12 percent in 2014 to 21 percent in 2050. In just over a generation, the number of people over 60 will nearly match the number of people under 25. Already two-thirds of the world’s over-60s live in low- and middle-income countries, and this will rise to four-fifths by 2050. However, older people remain largely ignored in the discussions over the post-2015 development agenda.

Despite the triumph of development in longer lives, the quality of life one can expect to live as an older person varies considerably from country to country. It's not the same to be old in Norway as it is in Afghanistan. And despite the relatively small percentage of older people in the lowest ranked countries, these nations too will see a rise in the number of over-60s.

The index also highlights the exceptionally poor data on people aged 50 and over, an approach which does not match the reality of people living longer everywhere. Sufficient data was only available for 96 countries. Gaps in international data sets call into question the capacity of governments to make informed policy decisions.

We are currently at a crucial time with U.N. member states negotiating the new Sustainable Development Goals to succeed the Millennium Development Goals at the end of 2015. HelpAge International hopes this new information can make a significant contribution to raise awareness about the “invisible” older people of the world, and consequently push aging issues higher up the post-2015 agenda to ensure no one is left behind.

The good news is that this year some Latin American countries have made progress on quality of life for older people, a success attributed to the expansion of social pensions across the region. These tax-financed, noncontributory pensions are a game changer for older people. They have the potential to create a basic regular income for some of the very poorest older people. In comparison, contributory pensions have failed to support those in low- and middle-income countries, where most people work in the informal sector and consequently do not qualify for formal pension schemes.

Social pensions do not only bring benefits to older people. Financial support from younger generations to older family members can constitute a large cost to the household. Sharing this cost across society relieves the pressure on poorer families. In Bolivia, for example, the universal Dignity Pension for everyone from the age of 60 has led to dramatic increases in school enrolment and falls in child labor in households with an older person.

The expansion of social pensions reflects a recent global trend. For example, in 2009 China introduced a rural social pension covering 133 million more people, equivalent to 16 percent of the global population of older people. Nevertheless, only half of the world’s population can expect to receive a basic pension in old age.

HelpAge International's report shows that social pensions are affordable. Calculations of future costs have found that, despite rapidly aging populations, most countries could keep costs stable as a percentage of GDP while indexing pension levels to keep pace with the cost of living. Nepal, for example, spends five times as much as India on its social pension relative to GDP, despite its GDP per capita being half that of India.

Ultimately, the index reveals that many countries in the world are not adequately prepared for the rising numbers of older people. With better data and an awareness of the issues facing governments, the future for older people does not have to look bleak.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the author

  • Oped tobyporter ed

    Toby Porter

    Toby Porter worked in the U.K. and Indian development and humanitarian NGO sector between 1993 and September 2016. He writes here in a personal capacity.