Opinion: Without disaggregated age data, the SDGs are set up to fail

A multigenerational crowd in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by: International Food Policy Research Institute / CC BY-NC-ND

Life expectancy around the globe is rising. By 2050, the population above 60 is projected to double, but data on ageing and older people has not kept pace with this trend.  

The problem is that there are gaps in comparable international data on older people in relation to income security, health and care, violence, abuse and neglect, and employment, especially in the informal sector. The gaps in data are widest in low- and middle-income countries. Why have these gaps come about?

One reason is that two of the main international survey tools — the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys and Demographic and Health Surveys — primarily focus on people ages 15-49. This is because they were originally designed as fertility surveys, but later morphed to monitor some of the Millennium Development Goals, and the follow-up Sustainable Development Goals. Although these are relevant to everyone, not just people of reproductive age, the age range of data collected has not been adapted — mainly due to the additional costs of expanding the survey samples and, until recently, the absence of sustained global political pressure on the issue.

As a result, while these surveys give us population figures for people over 50 and tell us about the households they live in, we continue to have major gaps in our international knowledge about the health, income, or lived experiences of older people. Yes, we need to count older people — but we also need to hear directly from them to understand ageing from the inside out. Or else we risk forming our ideas about older people from stereotypes based on impressions from the outside in.

SDG 5 aims to "eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls," but how can we achieve this if we only look at a 34-year age band? While some countries collect national data, we have no internationally comparable information about the violence committed against women over 49 and girls under 15 — a huge proportion of the population.

Meanwhile, SDG 3 aims to "ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages." But with current data collection tools, we know little about the access of older people to universal health coverage, a major SDG commitment that could transform health and care for older people everywhere, especially in low- and middle-income countries where health systems need to be strengthened to address ageing populations. Whether considering the experience of those ageing with HIV or the barriers older people face in accessing health services, if the data leaves them all but invisible, how can their needs be met?

How is the global community hoping to close these data gaps?

Last month, a group of statisticians and ageing experts from 14 different countries and a handful of international organizations that got together in the United Kingdom to talk about statistics on ageing and age data disaggregation. The aim was to ensure older people are counted and their unique experiences are understood. We talked about what we know, what we don't know, what we need to know, and what work is being done in different countries to capture the lives and contributions of the above 50 population.

Among the innovative new work taking place is an UNDESA-led Multiple Indicator Survey on Ageing currently being piloted in Malawi, and developed by statisticians, policymakers, and academics in Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi. This is expected to be a rich source of data on those above 50 years of age.  

We also learned about the wealth of longitudinal health and retirement studies from around the globe hosted on the free-to-use Gateway to Global Ageing website. It offers a digital library of survey questions, a search for finding comparable questions across surveys, and identically defined variables for cross-country analysis. They have worked to break down barriers to accessing data to ensure existing data sources can be used more effectively.

Together we prioritized areas of ageing and age-disaggregated statistical work that we want to collectively address. We want to champion a lifecourse approach to ageing statistics that embraces the fact that we start ageing the moment we are born. We want to develop tools that tell statisticians how they can collect data on older people effectively, providing the right questions to ask, and promoting the case studies of countries that have done it right. And we want a platform to share all this important information.

We will seek the endorsement of the United Nations Statistical Commission in March 2018. This will give a mandate to help focus global attention on the international comparability of data for the common good, and give legitimacy to the guidance that is produced by the group.  

There is no typical older person, and people's experiences change throughout the period of life that people consider "old." We need to think not about older people as a uniform group, but a collection of very diverse age cohorts.  

By closing data gaps, we hope to break down the negative stereotypes associated with older people — whether they are 50, 70, or 100. We can shine a light on the many ways they participate in families, communities, and societies, and recognize the contributions they make that are currently uncounted and unknown.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Kim Bradford Smith

    Kim Bradford Smith is the senior statistics and evidence lead at the U.K. Department for International Development.
  • Patricia Conboy

    Patricia Conboy is head of global ageing, advocacy and campaigning with HelpAge International.