Statement at the Global Symposium on Ageing, Seoul 2017

23 Octubre 2017

Statement of UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at the opening session of the Global Symposium on Ageing 2017 in Seoul, Republic of Korea.


Mr. Tim Thompson, Asia Pacific Population Institute (APPI), 

Mr. Sukyeong Hwang, Commissioner of Statistics Korea (KOSTAT),

Honorable Deputy Minister Mehseni Bandpey of Iran,

Members of Parliament,

Colleagues and friends from academia, civils society organizations and sister UN


As the newly-appointed Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, it is my great pleasure to open this Global Symposium on Ageing.

UNFPA is proud to co-host this meeting with the National Statistical Office of the Republic of Korea, KOSTAT.

I would like to express my gratitude to the Government of the Republic of Korea, and the leadership of KOSTAT, for their support and cooperation, most notably Mr. Sukyeong Hwang, KOSTAT’s Commissioner.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the age of ageing.

One in nine persons is aged 60 or older. This is projected to increase to one in five by 2050. 

Population ageing is no longer a phenomenon of developed countries. The pace of population ageing is progressing most quickly in developing countries. By 2050, around 80 percent of people aged 60 or older will live in what are now low- or middle-income countries.

Ageing is a triumph of development.

We must now turn our focus from merely helping people reach old age to helping them reach a happy old age.

Ageing is not only driven by falling fertility rates, but also by an unparalleled rise in longevity. It is the outcome of great achievements in health and nutrition, in social and economic development, and it reflects a better quality of life around the globe.

Yet from surveys we know that more and more countries have “major concerns” about population ageing and the related issue of low fertility. Let me assure you that UNFPA does not take these concerns lightly. 

Consider the example of Mrs. Kim – now entering her seventh decade of life in the small village where she was born and raised. Imagine her, as with so many of her generation, being made to marry early in those days, perhaps as young as 15 or 16, with minimum education. She would probably have had children early; the pregnancies would likely have been unplanned; and childbirth may have been risky. Her husband, 10 or even 20 years her senior, may have died a long while ago, leaving her a widow, unprepared to enter the workforce and unable to properly fend for herself.

This story is not uncommon; we see it repeated in many places, in many contexts.

As people live longer even as family sizes become smaller, we can all be concerned about the sustainability of social security and intergenerational support systems.

As a growing proportion of older people rely on pensions, there is fear that this will exhaust government budgets, undermining economic growth.

There is concern that in old age existing inequality will be exacerbated.

Elderly men have higher incomes than women, because they had higher lifetime earnings. This is of particular importance because the older population is, and will remain, predominantly female. As women outlive men, we are seeing more women in old age left in poverty.

Further, the rural elderly are compelled to work for longer than their urban peers. They don’t have generous retirement schemes. Health problems and limitations are more common and more serious among older people – especially those who are rural and poor.  

In times of conflict or disaster, when people must flee, what happens to that old woman or man who can’t run? Disability or limited mobility are often a feature of old age.  Do public disaster response plans at present cater for their circumstances?

Our health systems need to adapt to the changing burden of disease of an older society. Let’s innovate with new areas of specialization, and new points of access. Inevitably, we will need long-term care systems that are geared to more, and older, people.

Ideally, we will need people at home, socially attached for as long as possible. Also ideally, when it comes to health care settings, the new model of nursing home is not going to be a traditional nursing home; it will be a community setting with gardens, energy, happiness and disability-friendly spaces.

Last, there is such concern over low fertility that we see a growing number of incentives to encourage people to have more children – incentives that too often do not reflect the rights and needs of young couples, incentives that are not particularly effective.

Fear of the unknown is a human trait. But if history teaches us one lesson, it is that the unknown is often less worrying once it arrives. The future is often transformed by factors we cannot anticipate, not least by human ingenuity – and I encourage all of us to overcome the fear of ageing, and to capitalize on gatherings like this to develop innovative solutions.

It is not the sheer number of people who are in working age that determines economic growth, but the productivity of those who are economically active.

In our unequal world today, far too many people are not engaged in economic activity – too many are left behind, or engaged in informal work.

So addressing inequality is one of our best paths to a better future in ageing societies. 

Let us return for a moment to the story of Mrs. Kim. Imagine if, as an adolescent, she had been able to take that other branch of the road: Completing school and higher education; achieving gainful employment; marrying as an adult and of her own choice; having healthy children and being able to invest resources for their well-being; and, ultimately, enjoying a secure old age.

Let us therefore ensure that all people are able to contribute.

At the same time, of course, many people can and do earn income from labour or assets well into old age, successfully supporting themselves and contributing to their communities.

A more inclusive society, with rising productivity, can offset a decline in the proportion of the working age population as we define it today. And we must not underestimate this fact.

If addressed in a holistic way, ageing may ultimately lead to better policies, more participation of those left behind, more resilient social systems and allow us to harness the experience and energy of older persons later in life – to reap what we call the “longevity dividend” which can be considered a “second demographic dividend” of healthy, active ageing with engagement in family and community.

A longevity dividend comes with an older generation that has enjoyed the opportunity to save and invest during their active working years. 

This is more likely to come from a generation of youth that has enjoyed human rights throughout the life course…

Who entered the labour market with a sound education and had access to decent work…

Who started a family free from coercion or violence…

And who lived a life where family and work were in harmony, with men sharing responsibility for child care and household chores, in an equal partnership.

What is important is ensuring that both women and men have the chance to balance work and family life.  Gender equality in the home, as well as in the workplace, is critical.  OECD shared compelling data last week that couples who share housework on a more gender-equal basis are more likely to have a second child.  So countries that fear very low fertility should focus on gender equality and creating a more fair and just world for all.

To advance a better world in an ageing society, we need evidence-based policies that help us create “a society for all ages”, as called for by the 2002 Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. A world that is focused on justice for all ages, for men and women, and that is supportive of work-life balance.

This underscores many of the values of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population on Development or ICPD, as well as the 2030 Agenda which is underpinned by the Sustainable Development Goals.

The ICPD, which has long served as the foundation for UNFPA’s mandate, gives special attention to enabling the self-reliance of older persons, securing their ability to work as long as possible and desired, and enabling their continued participation for the benefit of society.

As the United Nations population agency, many countries are increasingly turning to us for advice and assistance on issues of ageing and low fertility. Let me clearly underscore that UNFPA is committed to helping governments address these issues in concert with partners, civil society and communities.

To this end, UNFPA has launched a Global Programme on Ageing to support governments to generate the best possible national data on population projections, ageing and fertility. And we are proud to say that the Programme benefits from the generous support of the Republic of Korea.

Between 1974 and 1991, UNFPA collaborated closely with the Republic of Korea in the area of family planning, population policy, and population data, and we are very gratified to now partner with Korea to offer demographic intelligence and policy support to other countries. The issue of population ageing is of immense importance to nations such as Japan, China and Iran, as well as European and Latin American countries. It’s soon to become of interest to Africa as well.  Ageing is indeed part of a universal agenda.

Building on this foundation, I am truly pleased to announce that UNFPA will establish a permanent liaison office in Seoul – and we look forward to welcoming other partners to our shared work on population ageing. The Republic of Korea, and many other countries, have rich experiences to share with one another. This event is an opportunity to do exactly that – to convene us all as stakeholders, and to garner lessons for a better world.

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends – from the elders of Guatemala we are told: Everyone is the age of their heart! Everyone is the age of their heart.

I believe that by joining forces and working together, we truly can make a difference and help promote meaningful responses to population ageing – responses based on values of non-discrimination and equality that advance the vision of a vigorous, happy and healthy old age.

It has been a genuine pleasure to witness the close collaboration between KOSTAT and UNFPA over the past few months. I applaud the staff of both institutions for making this event happen. I would also like to thank the Asia Pacific Population Institute, APPI, for its superb collaboration – and to thank all of you for committing your time and expertise to these deliberations, which will have an impact on the well-being and happiness of elders around the world for years to come.