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Keynote Address at The Columbia-Fudan Global Summit on Aging & Health by Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Deputy Executive Director

It is my great honor and pleasure to deliver this address at the Columbia-Fudan Global Summit on Aging & Health, representing UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, and to share with you the perspective and work of the United Nations Population Fund on the important issue of aging. I would like to thank the organizers for the opportunity to reflect upon what has been achieved, and how we are going to improve and do better in as begin the next 15-year period of Global Sustainable Development Goals, Agenda 2030.

As the adage goes, everyone wants to live a long time but no one wants to get old. Yet as we all know, the world is aging at an unprecedented pace. One in nine persons is 60 years old or older, a rate projected to increase to one in five by the year 2050.  And population aging is no longer just a developed country phenomenon. In fact, the pace is progressing faster in developing countries. By 2050, around 80 percent of people aged 60 or older will live in what are currently low- or middle-income countries. In his recent statement at the occasion of the International Day of Older Persons, our UNFPA Executive Director summarized what is on the forefront of many people’s minds. He said, “Population ageing – one of the most significant trends of the 21st century – represents both a cause for celebration and a challenge”.

Indeed, most would agree that moving from a state of high mortality and high fertility to a state of low mortality and low fertility has been one of the greatest achievements of many countries. This shift is attributable to immense progress in health and education, water and sanitation systems, access to electricity, and more of the conveniences brought in via economic progress and rising living standards.

Yet, moving from one side of this population spectrum – high mortality and fertility – to the other side of the spectrum – low mortality and fertility – adds up to major changes in the demographic landscape.  Initially, when mortality rates fall - and fertility levels have not yet adjusted, countries will see an accelerated of population growth and a large increase in the youth population. But when fertility levels fall to adjust to mortality levels, countries will see a deceleration of population growth and an increasingly older population.

This transition is a good thing – consider it a sign of immense social, and economic progress and a positive overall development. It would be meaningless and futile trying to stop or delay this transition. However, movement from a state of rapid population growth to a state of population aging, and possibly population decline, does change the nature of the challenges societies confront, in major ways.

Whereas many of the world’s poorest countries are still at a relatively early stage of this demographic transition and will continue to see marked population growth over the next decades, some of the world’s most advanced countries have reached a more mature stage of demographic transition. These countries will witness further population aging. In Asia, we find some of the world’s poorest countries that fall more squarely in the former youth-predominant category. We also have some of the world’s most developed countries that fall into the latter more rapidly aging category. To date, Asia continues to be world’s most heterogeneous region, not only in economic terms but also in demographic terms. Still, the trend even in the less developed countries of the region is clear. The ‘writing is on the wall’ – populations are starting to face the challenges of aging everywhere, more rapidly than ever. With 508 million people age 60 or over, Asia accounts for more than half the world’s 901 million older persons.

As many countries enter an entirely new demographic phase where they will eventually have more people above the age of 65 than below the age of 15, it is a concern with coping with the future that they are to confront is understandable. It is new territory, which goes along with concern because of the unknown. However, if history teaches us one lesson, it is that the eventual reality is often much less difficult than what was anticipated in the first place. Scenarios that we paint of the future are often circumscribed and mitigated by many intervening factors, not least among them human ingenuity. It will not be much different with aging of populations. On this premise I encourage us all lead, in helping to overcome unfounded fears about aging populations. This fear is not helpful and often exaggerates, and does not help to identify the necessary policy responses.

Fear of aging would lead to futile attempts to stop the aging of societies. Again this is not easily possible, nor is it desirable as aging is an outcome of social and economic progress. Furthermore, the fear of aging many times leads to ageism and discrimination, lamentably. It is no coincidence this year the theme of the International Day of Older Persons is “Take a Stand against Ageism”.

Let me be frank – we do not want fear nor ageism, neither for today nor for the future. Instead, let us focus on the new challenges that emerge with population aging, and seek to address them. At the same time, let us not lose sight of the opportunities that come with population aging, instead let us do our best to realize them. Increasing longevity is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Population ageing is proof of the progress of global development – more children surviving childhood, more women surviving childbirth and choosing to have fewer children, improved nutrition, sanitation and other advances.

In the era of Agenda 2030, which focuses on the global sustainable development goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly last year and to continue over the next fifteen years with the theme: Leave No-one Behind, there is a special place for considering inclusiveness for the elders in society, and using their knowledge and wisdom to enhance prosperity and partnership across the globe.