One Finite Planet

Ageing population: a problem, or myth with an agenda?

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Have you heard of the ‘ageing population problem’? Why is it a problem that people living longer?

Or is the problem that population the population explosion is ending?

Or maybe, declaring there is an 'ageing population problem' has become a convenient excuse for governments with unbalanced budgets, and big business push a population growth agenda?

This page looks at the real issues underpinning an 'ageing population'. The reality is: an ageing population itself is not a real problem.

Is Ageing A Problem? Why is people living longer a problem?

Ageing sounds bad. We would all much rather remain young, but the reality is that ageing is better than the only real alternative.

But is that the average age of the population is increasing really a problem?

Often, a debate is very much all in getting the best name for your side of the argument. How could anyone ague against ‘pro-life’?

The label ‘ageing population problem’ includes the word problem without an embedded explanation of why an ageing population is a problem.

Further, the word ‘ageing’ is also negative, as while it happens naturally by reaching a next birthday which is a good thing, we all get closer to death which is extremely negative. Smoking cigarettes, and poor lifestyle ‘age’ people, and at the same time, help prevent an ‘ageing population’.

There are three factors that contribute to our ageing populations:

  1. mostly due to the reduction in infant deaths, global life expectancy rise during 20th century, from 49.2 to 80.3 years
  2. improved lifestyle choices and better medicine has means less people die before reaching their maximum lifespan.
  3. lower birthrates that followed lower infant mortality, reduces the ration of young people as can be seen from population pyramids.

All these factors are positive. Not one factor is itself a ‘problem’.

An ageing population is not a problem, it is desirable.

An ageing population correlates with happiness.

There is a list of the worlds happiest countries, and all of them have an ageing population. Compare the population graph of Finland, in recent years ranked the worlds happiest country, with Niger, the country with the world’s youngest population. In Finland, there are more people in the age group 65 to 75 than there are children between 0 and 10, yet this is the world’s happiest country.

An ageing population correlates with having wealth.

If population growth did help with per capita wealth, then why do people in countries with the fastest growing populations, have so much less wealth than those in countries with the lowest population growth?

In fact, the average GDP per capita for the 10 countries with the lowest birth-rates, at $846 per annum, does not compare well with the 50x higher average for the 10 countries with the lowest birth-rates, at $50,578 per annum.

Is population growth good for the economy
Lowest pop growthKorea, RepHong KongPuerto RicoSingaporeMaltaUkraineSpainItalyBosniaMacau 
birth rate.8.9.91.11.11.21.21.21.21.2
GDP/Cap34,99449,85037,82379,57633,0944,82830,15734,7777,07850,5781
highest pop growthNigerSomaliaCongoMaliChadAngolaNigeriaBurundiGambiaBurkina Faso
birth rate 6.65.95.75.75.65.45.25.25.15.0
GDP/Cap5995443,243897743379323562728448461

It is not that all low birth rate countries are crisis free either, with Bosnia and Ukraine in 2022, possibly having low birth rates at least in part due to instability. Overall, the economic outcomes of countries with birth rates below the midpoint, is better than those above the midpoint.

All evidence shows that a high birth rate, and thus lower average population age correlates with worse economic outcomes.

This does not prove an ageing population causes economic success, as correlation does not imply causation. It does suggest that the two come together. If you have economic success, you going to get an ageing population.

There is a balance between children and the elderly, and both can be dependants.

With a the growing population pyramid as per Niger, only 2.5% of the population are 65 and over, compared to Finland with 21% aged 65 and over. This represents an addition 18.5% of the population in Finland who in theory may be retired and be dependants that society needs to support.

However, there is an another side to the story. In Niger 50% of the population are under 15, while in Finland only 15.9% of the population are under 15. Overall, if all children are dependants, then Finland has an additional 15.6% of the population who are productive and do not need support. This is without allowing of the fact that some people do work beyond 65, and there are self-funded retirees.

The claim that a growing population means a larger percentage in the workforce, is only valid if the society accepts child labour.

The mathematical reality: an ageing population, or people who dying early.

It is very clear that throughout history, a lot of people died young. As discussed when looking a historical life expectancy, the length of lives of famous people all the way back to ancient Greece of typically at least 60 or 70 years or more years clearly demonstrated that many people lived relatively similar lifespans compared to people today. Yet life expectancy was only between 30 and 40 in Europe up to 1800. Why? Because so many people died while still children.

Have that number of children without half of them dying, and you would have a population explosion beyond even the one that brought us to 8 billion people.

It is simple math. If you have lots of children, and they all live, there is rapid exponential population growth.

Reality check: what problems do come with an aging population?

Real problems vs fake problems.

  • The Fake ‘Problems’:
    • Low Workforce Participation (false- covered above).
    • Low Population Growth Lowers Participation(false- only if children work)
  • The Real Problems
    • Increased age care (real)
    • Increased pension costs (real- but mostly not due to ageing population).
    • Adjusting Society
    • Healthcare costs (it is not just about ageing).

There are more elderly: so more aged care.

Although there are less elderly in an ageing population, than young people in a growing population, there are still more elderly. So any problems unique to the elderly will increase.

Parents provide childcare when they are not working, which generally means only daycare is required for working parents who, and may pay for childcare.

Care for the elderly can be needed 24/7.

Increased pension costs: most due to improved health and social services.

If a large percentage of the population die before reaching the age of retirement, then there would be lower pension costs. In practice, in a population who die younger, many people become too ill to work at a younger age too, and to save on the need to provide support it requires people die quickly.

Modern medicine means people who are ill can survive longer while ill, and this applies at any age.

If our society is going to car for these people, it comes at a cost and increasing cost, but having a growing population will not reduce this cost.

Adjusting society.

A large part of the ‘ageing population’, is really the transition from the peak of population growth from the explosion in around 1960 reaching the age of 60 in 2020. Up until 2020, the swelling age groups were all in their working years, but each age group was swelling.

Prior to the population explosion, while there were more young children, the population was almost stable. With generations all the same size, the interactions between generation was simpler, but became lost during the population explosion.

Society needs to find a new way to implement the intergenerational patterns of the past.

Healthcare costs: ageing is only a minor factor.

As medical science advances, the cost of the medical care a person on average receives rises.

Prices rise at a higher rate than inflation, which is logical, because new procedures are treatments continue to become available.

The health care available today goes far what was possible 10 years ago, and 10 years from now will likely be far more advanced than what is available today.

On trend, it will reach the point where the medical services that each person could on average received over their lifetime will at some point exceed the earnings of the average person over their lifetime.

How society deals with this is a challenge, and yes, the ability of medical science to keep people alive, increases the medical services they will access, but this is a far more complex problem than simply being an ‘ageing population problem’.

The ‘bait and switch’ of the ‘ageing population problem’.

Confirmation bias or deception? How the solution becomes population growth.

There are people who always want population growth:

  • Not just dictators growing empires, but other politicians too.
  • Companies wanting continually growing customer bases.
  • As companies only hire when their earnings per employee exceed costs, the more potential workers, the greater the potential profit.

The rich and powerful have always been motivated to grow populations, because it increases their wealth and power.

Not everyone trapped by confirmation bias into believing there is a ‘ageing population problem’ provides a case for population growth is motivated by wealth and power. People with altruistic motives wanting immigrants to be welcomed can also be happy to embrace an argument that supports increasing immigration. The problem in this case is that immigration with economic motives replaces the immigration the improves human rights, with immigration that tramples all over human rights.

The wrong reason to encourage immigration.

An ‘ageing population problem’ is often put forward as a reason for encouraging immigration.

This ‘solve the ageing population problem‘ reason, then becomes an opportune argument for those wanting to encourage immigration. People wanting to encourage immigration may have noble motives, but not The problem with opportune arguments, is as they are not the reall agenda

The trap is the result is immigration focused on achieving economic goals, often as ‘skilled migration’, which is a way to turn the positive of encouraging immigration, into an immoral outcome.

What is the argument for economic immigration?

The theory is that people reach an age where they can no longer work, and therefore can no longer contribute towards the production of the wealth of the society. The wealth produced by ‘productive’ people, ‘breadwinners’, must be shared by all: wealth producers (breadwinners) and those who can no longer produce wealth (dependants) alike.

In economic terminology,  the “Gross Domestic Product” or economy is produced only by those “breadwinners” in the workforce.  GDP per capita, one measure of the wealth of society, is determined by dividing the  “Gross Domesitc Product” by the number of people in the population.  Therefore greater ratio of people who do not produce wealth, the greater the burden on those producing the wealth to produce a high level for the entire population.

This is of course all based on the assumption that the elderly have a much greater ratio of “dependants” than the rest of society.

That population growth would reduce the total number of dependants is easily disproved, and is based on the hope that people will not realise that children are also dependants, and a growing population increases this group. Consider the population pyramids of Niger, and Norway above.

Immigration is at best a questionable solution.

Since it is the richer countries who are in the best position to attract immigrants,  this solution is generally about the richer countries trying to improve their ratio of “breadwinners” by luring these breadwinners from poorer countries.  While these immigrant “breadwinners” may send part of their income back home to support dependants back home, all their income still counts as GDP for their new country and they boost taxation revenue of the new country.  From a government point of view, such a strategy helps rich countries and is a problem for poorer countries.

There are potential economic problems from , and it becomes clear that any economic challenges that could arise from There is no cause effect or other relationship that means these two factors are linked. Surely longer life expectancy is considered sufficiently desirable that no one would suggest this factor could be negative. The average age of people in society can increase due to this factor alone, yet it is hard to see how this alone could be seen as a problem. However, the implication of ‘ageing population problem’ is that any increase in average age of society is a problem.

Every country benefits from the highest possible GDP per capita, and suffers hardship when GPD per capita falls, not just countries seeking to address this ‘aging population problem’.   To increase the ratio of  ‘working population’ through immigration, a country must have an immigrant intake with selected to maximise the ratio ‘of working age’ among immigrants.  The effect of such a policy is to selectively extract ‘breadwinners’ these people from other countries.  Immigration does not change the global ration of old to young, or the global ratio of “breadwinners” to dependants, immigration only changes who lives where.   One countries gain in this equation is another countries loss.

Birth Rates & ‘Ageing Population’

The key factor that is ‘blamed’ for the ageing population is reduced population growth. Less births, less young people.

Population growth is slowing due to smaller families, as widely discussed elsewhere on this blog. In a rapidly increasing population, each new generation has a greater population than the previous generation.  In this expanding population, the older generation is much smaller than the younger, and with a small number of the older generation, the average age of the entire population is much lower. Contrast this todays’  relatively stable population, and the generations are of a similar size, so without the ever increasing numbers of younger people, the average age is older.

Returning to “growth age” birth rates as a solution?

The growth age featured larger families, with a far greater ratio of younger people. Whereas the trend of today’s more stable population yields a similar number of people in each age group, the peak growth age had far more children and far fewer elderly. ‘Aging population’ solved?  Except that the proposed problem, less dependants, is not solved at all.  It turns out that children are also dependants!  And high birth rates mean far more of them.  In fact, with children now spending longer in education, and then the higher rates of unemployment among young people, the reality is higher birth rates does not reduce dependants, or the cost of dependants, nor increase the ratio of breadwinners at all.  Reality is there are far more ‘self-funding retirees’ than self-funded children.  The only impact is that the dependants are younger, and perhaps we feel happier about young people being a cost to society?

Conclusion.

There entire ‘ageing population’ problem, is a great argument to justify plans and actions by governments where the real motivations are less attractive to promote.

Updates:

  • *2022 September 08: Update and reformat.
  • 2017 Jan 16: First version.

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