The world is ageing rapidly. People aged 60 and older make up 12.3 per cent of the global population, and by 2050, that number will rise to almost 22 per cent. Ageing is a triumph of development: People are living longer because of better nutrition, sanitation, health care, education and economic well-being. Although an ageing world poses social and economic challenges, the right set of policies can equip individuals, families and societies to address these challenges and to reap its benefits. UNFPA works to raise awareness about population ageing and the need to harness its opportunities and address its challenges. UNFPA also supports research and data collection to provide a solid base for policies and planning, and makes sure ageing issues are integrated into national development programmes and poverty reduction strategies.

Topic summary

An ageing world

Population ageing is one of the most significant trends of the 21st century. One in eight people in the world are aged 60 or over. As long as fertility rates continue to decline and life expectancy continues to rise, older people will steadily increase as a proportion of the population. And while population ageing is a global phenomenon, it is progressing fastest in developing countries – including those with large youth populations.The contributions of older persons to society are invaluable. Many such contributions cannot be measured in economic terms – such as caregiving, volunteering, and passing cultural traditions to younger generations.

Older persons are also important as leaders, often playing a role in conflict resolution within families, in communities and even in emergency situations.

Yet they are also often vulnerable. They may have weak social support networks, lack income, or be subject to discrimination and abuse. Older women, in particular, are vulnerable to discrimination, social exclusion and denial of the right to inherit property. Women also tend to live longer than men, and may experience deepening poverty as they age.

Preserving the health, safety and independence of older persons

Although many elderly people are in good health, ageing is accompanied by biological changes that increase the risk of illness and disability. A life-cycle approach to health care – one that starts early, continues through the reproductive years and lasts into old age – is essential for the physical and emotional well-being of older persons, and, indeed, all people. Public policies and programmes should additionally address the needs of older impoverished people who cannot afford health care.

Age-friendly environments are also important to ensuring the safety, health and independence of older persons.

Affordable housing and accessible transportation, for example, can help older persons remain active members of society. Exposing, investigating and preventing discrimination, abuse and violence against older people is also critical.

Many older persons eventually require care, a responsibility that typically falls on their families. But declining fertility and rapid urbanization have changed traditional family relations, sometimes increasing burdens on the traditional family support network. As the number of older people grows, families will need support with caregiving. And it is increasingly important to ensure social protection for the elderly. Social pensions can reduce the poverty faced by too many older people, assisting not only older persons themselves but their entire households, even helping to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. These pensions also empower older persons, and can help balance gender relations by providing both men and women with a source of income.

What is UNFPA doing?

UNFPA’s work focuses on five key areas: policy dialogue, capacity building, data collection, research and advocacy. UNFPA facilitates the development of evidence-based policies to ensure that older people’s issues are addressed. UNFPA also supports culture- and gender-sensitive research on population ageing, and raises awareness of the need to address the opportunities and challenges presented by this phenomenon.

UNFPA also collaborates with the International Institute on Ageing in Malta to address the challenges of population ageing, and to train policymakers in developing age-friendly policies and in implementing and monitoring the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. This plan, adopted in 2002, aims to create a “society for all ages” in which people everywhere are able to age with security, dignity and their full rights.

Last updated 13 October 2015.