Economists fear ageing population time bomb

As human beings live longer and continue to work for longer than ever before, experts warn that young people may struggle to find decent jobs. How worried should the youth of today be?

It is the plot of a thousand horror films: a centuries-old vampire must feed off blood to stay alive. Yet a new study from the University of California suggests that there is some fact in this fiction as consuming young blood may slow the ageing process.

Researchers took 18-month-old mice and injected them with the blood of three-month-old mice. The older mice then performed better at learning and memory tasks. Some experts hope that this research could help stretch human lifespans and improve the quality of life for older generations.

Yet while good health is to be welcomed, humans already live longer than ever before. Almost half the over-65s who have ever lived are alive today, and the global population is set to become older still: according to the UN, in the next 20 years the number of over-65s will double to an incredible 1.1bn people.

Some economists worry that providing pensions for all these people will cause a huge strain on government budgets. The population is ageing, but the birth rate is simultaneously falling, meaning there are fewer people paying tax to support these pensions. This will be most severely felt in Japan, which it is estimated will have 69 old people for every 100 people of working age. Their pension bill could swallow vast sums that would otherwise be spent on services such as education and health.

Yet other analysts think the real problem is not retirement but working for longer. Increasingly, older, well-educated and skilled people remain employed in positions that would otherwise have given younger people valuable experience. A decade ago, only a quarter of Germans in their early 60s worked, whereas nearly half do today. If this trend continues, the result will be a well-paid elderly minority and a huge number of younger people unable to find work.

Both outlooks are bleak for the youth of today as the old take their blood, at least figuratively if not literally. Should we be worried?

Golden oldies

Some say the ageing population will be disastrous for society. Government policies already tend to favour the elderly because they are more likely to vote, and the situation will only become worse as they become a larger proportion of the population. Governments will be crippled by paying pensions and young people will be jobless.

Others say that the future is uncertain and there is no point in worrying. Innovations can create whole new job markets for young people for which older folks have no aptitude or experience. Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook when he was 23, and the most exciting start-ups are run by young, enterprising people. The future will provide work for everyone in industries we can barely imagine today.

You Decide

  1. Will people living longer put pressure on young people in the future?
  2. ‘People should be forced to retire when they reach a certain age.’ Do you agree?


  1. In pairs, list five different jobs that exist today which over-65s would not have been able to do when they were your age. Compare your list with the rest of the class.
  2. Using the Economist article in our expert links and your own research, find six potential problems facing the world’s ageing population. Present your results to the class, stating which problems you think will have the greatest impact and why.

Some People Say...

“It is not age, but ability, skills and experience that should determine when older people retire.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I can’t do anything about this, so why should I worry?
Although you can’t change the fact that people are living for longer, you can start to think about what sort of work you are interested in doing in the future and what exciting opportunities there might be for younger people to pursue.
Are all old people working for longer?
It depends on the type of work. In Europe, only a quarter of people without degrees work between the ages of 60 and 64, whereas half of people with degrees do. This is because unskilled work, like manual labour, becomes harder with age. People are also putting off retirement because of the 2008 financial crisis, which made most governments lower the amount they offer in pensions.

Word Watch

While the birth rate is falling across the developed world, it has risen in England and Wales by 18% compared to a decade ago. More than a quarter of these births are from mothers who were born abroad. The main exceptions to the falling global birth rate are Asia and Africa, whose combined population is expected to rise from 3bn to 5bn by 2050.
Japan has a population of 126m but this has been shrinking for the last decade. Manufacturers think its adult nappy market will be larger than the market for baby nappies by 2020.
In the 2010 UK general election, 75% of 60 year-olds voted, compared to fewer than 50% of 18 to 24 year-olds. This makes political parties much more likely to offer policies that appeal to older people.
Driverless cars and 3D printing are just two examples of recent innovations that may well change the kinds of work people do. The internet has completely transformed the nature of the jobs market, even though it has only existed for 25 years.

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