Japan, Italy, and Germany top the list of the world’s oldest countries—if the data are based on the share of the population ages 65 and older.1 But redefine “old” as the share of the population expected to live 15 years or less and Bulgaria, Latvia, and Ukraine top the list. Japan and Italy don’t even make the top 10 (see table).
What If “Old” Isn’t Measured by a Chronological Age?
Our measures of aging are static, but old age is changing, Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) argued at an international conference earlier this year and in their forthcoming book, Prospective Longevity: A New Vision of Population Aging.2
In their view, using age 65 as the threshold for old age overstates the impact of aging on societies. It assumes people become dependent and cease being economically active on their 65th birthdays.
Table. Top-10 Countries With the Oldest Populations Vary by Measurement Used
|Share of the Population Ages 65 and Older, 2015||Share of the Population With a Remaining Life Expectancy of 15 Years or Less|
Source: International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA), Aging Demographic Data Sheet 2018 (Laxenburg, Austria: IIASA, 2018).
New measures could better capture the dynamics of population aging and eventually become the basis for policy changes that make public pensions such as Social Security more sustainable.3
Sanderson and Scherbov created a life expectancy-based measure, called the prospective old age dependency ratio (POADR), that calculates the number of people in age groups with remaining life expectancies of 15 years or fewer, divided by the number of adults (ages 20 and older) in age groups with life expectancies greater than 15 years.
By contrast, the commonly used old-age dependency ratio (OADR) is based solely on chronological age and is usually the ratio of people ages 65 and older to those in the traditional working ages (15 to 64).
Using the POADR’s moving threshold for defining old age means fewer people are classified as old in many countries, and the ratio of old people to working-age people increases much more slowly over the next few decades, Scherbov showed.4
The POADR and OADR are available for side-by-side comparison for all major countries on the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ (UNDESA) website, Profiles of Ageing 2017.5 A PRB Population Bulletin, “Rethinking Age and Aging,” explored this measure in depth.6
Calls Increase for New Measures and Better Data
Sanderson and Scherbov are part of a growing chorus of scholars, organizations, and UN experts calling for both new measures of aging and better data on older people—explored in-depth at a February 2019 conference, “Measuring Population Ageing,” in Bangkok organized by UNDESA, IIASA, and Chulalongkorn University.
Most alternative measures of old age and dependency are based on groups of people’s characteristics rather than chronological age—not only remaining life expectancy, but also physical health, cognitive function, and labor force participation—which provide a more nuanced picture of older people’s needs and contributions to society. For example:
National Transfer Accounts (NTA): This set of multiple measures illustrates the complex ways resources flow across generations, including from older people to their children and grandchildren. The NTA project offers detailed data for 60 countries on the interplay among family support, government programs, and savings at various life stages (expressed as per capita averages).7
Measures such as the NTA allow researchers to examine the degree of economic dependency within a society and expected changes related to population aging, explained Alexia Fürnkranz-Prskawetz of the Vienna Institute of Demography and IIASA.8 Adding a time transfer measure that accounts for unpaid caregiving to the economic data highlights interdependency among generations and the disparate contributions of women of all ages, she showed.
Healthy Aging and Care Dependence: The World Health Organization (WHO) is working to refine measures of healthy aging as part of their 10 Priorities for a Decade of Action on Healthy Ageing.9 The focus is on older people’s ability to function (functional ability) within their environment, not their age or the conditions or diseases they have, explained WHO’s Ritu Sadana.10 The WHO measure of functional ability is based on the interaction between an individual’s physical and cognitive capacity (called intrinsic capacity) and their environment (both physical and social aspects of their home, neighborhood, and community).
Rather than using chronological age, the dependent portion of the population can be better estimated by focusing on care dependency, Sadana argued. The WHO care dependency measure tracks difficulty with the six activities of daily living—bathing, dressing, eating, getting in/out of bed, using the toilet, and walking across a room—related to declines in function.
Conference participants also examined better ways to track progress toward the internationally agreed upon Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as they relate to the well-being of older people, including health care access and economic security. Unlike the earlier Millennium Development Goals, the global targets for 2030 call for ensuring that the SDGs are met for all segments of society, including vulnerable older adults. Data on older people are limited in many countries and often not separated from data on other members of their multigenerational households, making assessing older people’s well-being difficult in many countries, reported Amal Abou Rafeh, Division for Inclusive Social Development/UNDESA; Storey Angele, Office of National Statistics, United Kingdom and Titchfield City Group on Ageing; and Patricia Conboy, HelpAge International.11
60 Is Becoming the New 50 as People Worldwide Live Longer
At the root of this interest in new ways and better data to measure old age are dramatic increases in life expectancy—dubbed a global longevity revolution by UNDESA.
UNDESA reports that new 60-year-olds in high-income countries can expect to live at least another 25 years, based on their Population Division’s World Population Prospects 2017.12 As recently as the 1950s, 25 years of additional life expectancy were limited to those 50 years old and younger in these countries, they show.
“In a very real, demographic sense, 60 is the new 50,” the agency suggests, further explaining the shift in this way:
“In Ethiopia, a new 60-year-old can expect to live at least another 18 years. This was also true of 50-year-old Ethiopians in 1950. In Ireland, a new 60-year-old can expect to live at least another 24 years. This was also true of 50-year-olds in Ireland in the 1950s.
“Progress has been fastest in Asia—where 60 is the new 48 [the average life expectancy of a 60-year-old is that of a 48-year-old in 1950]. Latin America shows about average progress—where 60 is the new 50. And Africa and Europe have had slower progress—where 60 is the new 54.”
PRB’s 2018 World Population Data Sheet underscores the growing shift toward longer lives and older populations, showing that 82 countries are projected to have at least 20 percent of their population ages 65 and older in 2050, compared with 13 countries in 2018.13 Most African countries have relatively young populations but are expected to experience some of the world’s most rapid growth in their total number of older people between 2018 and 2050, with profound social implications.
A 30-year gap separates countries with the highest and lowest ages at which people experience the health problems of an average 65-year-old.
Better data will help us answer a key question: Are older people leading both longer and healthier lives? The authors of a Demography article, “Is 60 the New 50? Examining Changes in Biological Age Over the Past Two Decades,” say, “Yes, for Americans, particularly men.”14 Morgan E. Levine of Yale University and Eileen M. Crimmins of the University of Southern California find biological evidence that Americans appear to be aging more slowly than they were two decades ago. They point out that decelerating aging and postponing age-related disease and disability can improve individual quality of life and have profound economic implications.
But among countries worldwide, a University of Washington study finds wide variation in how well or poorly people age.15 Their analysis, published in The Lancet, shows that a 30-year gap separates countries with the highest and lowest ages at which people experience the health problems of an average 65-year-old. Angela Y. Chang and colleagues report that 76-year-olds in Japan and 46-year-olds in Papua New Guinea have the same level of age-related health problems as an average 65-year-old. On this health-related scale of how a country’s people are faring, the United States ranked 53rd out of 195 countries.
Some highlights of the wide-ranging two-day conference, “Measuring Population Ageing: Bridging Research and Policy, are captured in this Twitter Moment; PowerPoint presentations and videos of the sessions are available here. As part of a panel of journalists and communicators examining media’s role in both shaping public attitudes and perpetuating stereotypes on population aging, PRB shared our experience communicating population aging concepts using digital media.