World Bank urges action on graying Latin population

Population aging is a global issue that affects a growing number of countries around the world, especially at a time when family support and other traditional safety nets have become far less certain in the aftermath of the global economic crisis, according to the World Bank.

In Latin America, for example, life expectancy has jumped by 22 years over the last 50 years and its population is now dominated by working-age adults with significantly fewer children. The region faces the prospect of rapid aging, the bank said.

A new report from the World Bank’s Human Development Network warns that governments and communities in the region cannot afford to be complacent about a graying revolution, given that the next 50 years will be very different from its past half century.

According to “Population Aging: Is Latin America Ready?,” economic growth in Latin America will be more challenging in countries with large numbers of elderly people and meeting health care, pension, and other needs will be especially difficult for low- and middle-income countries. Establishing appropriate policies and institutions to accommodate the region’s powerful demographic shifts will be vital to safeguard Latin America’s social and economic future, says the report.

First World countries have been getting used to the idea of rapid aging over previous decades as a result of smaller family sizes, better health, more money, and longer lives, all of which has been a huge social plus, said Daniel Cotlear, report co-author and a lead economist in the World Bank’s Human Development Network.

“But we should all be worried that rapid aging is no longer a rich country phenomenon and that many poorer countries are now catching up, but largely without the money and advance planning to cope with the social and economic challenges of this profound social change,” he says.

Cotlear says the demographic makeup of Latin America and the Caribbean has changed dramatically since the 1950s. At that time, the region had a small population of about 160 million people, less than today’s population of Brazil. Two-thirds of Latin Americans lived in the countryside.

Families were large and women had one of the highest
fertility rates in the world, low levels of education, and few opportunities for work outside the household. Investments in health and education reached only a small fraction of the children, many of whom died before reaching their fifth birthday.

Today, the region’s population has tripled, and most people live in cities. Far fewer children die from illness thanks to health and education advances; and 50 percent fewer babies are born as a result of women taking advantage of education and significantly more opportunities to work outside the home.

As a result, demographic change in the region during the 21st century will be dominated by rapid population aging, he said. This trend can be seen in countries with high European immigration, which were the first to initiate demographic transition in the early 20th century and which also have some of the most extended social security systems, he added.

The rest of the region will continue to benefit from a falling dependency ratio for a few more years, but will then also face rapid aging, says Cotlear, adding that this process will not take a century as it did in Europe; it will take place over two or three decades. Globally, one-fourth of countries that are aging most rapidly are in the Latin American-Caribbean region.

“This book describes the issues that compel us to craft a new social agenda for Latin America which now needs to incorporate the challenges of the growing aging population,” says Alejandro Toledo, the former president of Peru, in a note written to the authors of the bank report. “Governments and the private sector must learn to balance the demands posed by a rapidly growing population of seniors while continuing to invest in the education of our youth and the needs of the poor.”

The report advises countries and communities to develop a number of policies that support long, productive lives for their workers and keep the elderly healthy and mobile for as long as possible.

Instead of retiring in their early 60s, workers could wait until much later to leave the workforce as they do in Singapore and some European Union countries, advises the report. Governments can provide lifelong learning programs for people in their 50s and 60s and should consider enacting laws against age discrimination.

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