Old Money

Old Money

Phillip Longman points out some vitally important trends in the demography of rich countries (“Think Again: Global Aging,” November 2010). But he overstates the case in the developing world, thus obscuring possible solutions to the problems of rich-world aging. While some developing countries will soon be aging too, notably China, others retain vast reservoirs of youth eager for education and jobs.

In many countries — the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda — almost half the population is under age 15. In other fast-growing countries — Bangladesh, Bolivia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Africa — nearly one-third is 14 or younger. Indeed, while the more developed countries have about 159 million people between ages 15 and 24, the less developed regions have more than 1 billion such youths, and another 1.7 billion below age 14. The world as a whole has no shortage of young people. The real problem the world faces today isn’t aging — it’s that almost 90 percent of the world’s youth is growing up in countries that can’t offer education, access to capital, physical security, or good governance.

It is one thing to note the inevitable graying of rich countries. It is another thing to overlook the opportunities and risks surrounding the world’s vast youth population. The only way to avoid the worst of both worlds is for aging rich countries to share their skills and capital with young developing ones.

Jack A. Goldstone
Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University
Arlington, Va.

Phillip Longman replies:

Jack Goldstone is correct in saying that less developed countries have most of the world’s remaining supply of youth. But they also face very high infant- and child-mortality rates. For example, the average woman in Sierra Leone needs to have more than three children to ensure that just two will survive to adulthood. This, combined with rapidly falling birth rates and somewhat better survival rates for older citizens, is causing less developed countries to experience the most rapid pace of population aging ever seen, as well as the largest increases in the absolute and proportionate numbers of old people.

According to U.N. projections, the median age in less developed countries (excluding rapidly aging China) will increase by nearly 11 years by 2050. In contrast, developed countries saw their median age increase a mere 5.5 years between 1950 and 1990 and are expected by the United Nations to see a rise of only about six years by midcentury.

Similarly, the coming population explosion among seniors will be far bigger in poor countries than rich ones. Again excluding China, less developed countries will see the number of people age 60 or over increase by 826 million by the middle of this century. This is more than five times the projected increase for developed countries, where the ranks of the 60-plus population will grow by only 147 million. Thus, those countries with the least wealth and the weakest social-welfare nets face the overwhelming burden of global aging. Needless to say, I agree that we should do all in our power to help these young people.