People around the world are having fewer children and living longer. The U.S., Europe and even large parts of the developing world are becoming aging societies without enough social services.

In many countries the old are neglected and abused, even if they?re still productive, and many don?t have enough health insurance or pension money to live decently, according to a United Nations report to the Second World Assembly on Aging. “In Africa, when an old man dies, a library disappears,” says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “Without the knowledge and wisdom of the old, the young would never know where they come from or where they belong.”

In the next 50 years, the number of people above 60 years of age will nearly quadruple, growing from about 600 million to almost 2 billion people. Today, one in every 10 people is 60 years or older but by 2050, one out of every 5 people will be an older person.

In Europe, the aging population is growing at such a rapid rate that several nations are considering easing immigration policies to let in more young workers who can pay for social services for the old.

In developing nations, old people do not enjoy retirement but face poverty. “We are having a prolongation of life but in what human conditions are elder people living?” says Venezuelan Ambassador Milos Alcalay.

With young people moving to urban centers, housing is scarce in cities and traditional extended family structures fall apart. “There isn’t a system in place in developing countries to look after older people other than the family,” says Nitin Desai, UN undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs.

Today the median age for the world is 26 years. The country with the youngest population is Yemen, with an average age of 15, and the oldest is Japan, with a median age of 41 years. By 2050, the average world age is expected to have increased to 36 years. The youngest people will be in Niger, the oldest will live in Spain.

In France, it took 115 years, from 1865 to 1980, for the proportion of older persons in the population to double from 7% to 17%. But developing nations will see the older population increase by 200% to 300% over a period of only 35 years. In Colombia, Malaysia, Kenya, Thailand and Ghana, the rate of increase in older people between 1990 and 2025 is expected to be 7% or 8% higher than in Britain or Sweden.

Dr. Robert Butler, founding director of the U.S. National Institute on Aging, calls the aging phenomenon “the most significant population shift in history.” The three main factors behind greater longevity are advances in public health, better nutrition and immunizations that prevent once-deadly infectious diseases. Women outlive men in all but two countries–Pakistan and Bangladesh. And boys contract more infectious diseases than girls and are more likely to have shorter lives from the use of cigarettes and alcohol.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, head of the World Health Organization says, “We must be fully aware that while the developed countries became rich before they became old, the developing countries will become old before they come rich.”

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