Professor Sarah Harper, Director and Professor of Gerontology, Oxford Institute of Ageing, University of Oxford
In her talk entitled "Youth - a scarce commodity in an ageing world?", Professor Sarah Harper assessed the risks of an ageing society. While the first part of her talk focused on the relevant facts, the second part focused on the individual and societal implications of an ageing society.
Though ageing is commonly viewed as a European and Japanese issue, it will be a global challenge by 2050. Already by 2030, more than 60% of people living in Asia will be over 60 years of age. Ageing thus is a major problem particularly for the less developed world. That people live longer is a welcome development; but our ageing society is also one where youth is disappearing. This in itself is a complex phenomenon, influenced by biological and societal factors – most prominently the education of women, but also local separation of the genders (women working in the service sector in Asian cities, while men work in the countryside) or reduced sperm counts. Professor Harper stressed that with respect to finite resources and an ageing society, a reduced fertility may be a blessing and instead of manipulation of fertility, societies are rather more likely to introduce palliative measures.
For a rational approach to real-life risks like global ageing it does not suffice to simply get the numbers right; we also need to get rid of unjustified hopes and fears. Note in particular that it is neither obvious nor objective which figures are the right ones to look at: The overall picture may look different when we look at life expectancy at the actual age of retirement instead of life expectancy at an early age, or focus on “healthy life expectancy”, etc. An exploration of which hopes and fears are justified and which ones lack an empirical basis has to distinguish between the challenges and threats of an incremental change, i.e. an extension of the normal healthy lifespan, and radical changes in the maximum lifespan of humans. Professor Harper de-mystified what she termed the “three myths” of ageing: the healthcare myth, the economic myth, and the social myth. Age structure affects health care costs – but income, lifestyle characteristics and environmental factors turn out to be even more relevant. Moreover, the knowledge that we will live longer may motivate individuals to live healthier lives. Similarly, the economic challenges of an ageing society are not as one-dimensional as commonly communicated. For instance, major challenges comprise pension burden, an ageing work force, skills shortage or early retirement. Here again it is mainly the Asian countries that face the most serious challenges: While the UK will exhibit an increase in old-age dependency ratios of 66 % up to 2050, the figure for Japan is 150% and for China 250%.