2.3.9 Changes in the Age Structure, with Special Reference to Ageing

Facts/messages: Age structures are changing as countries undergo the demographic transition, the shift from higher to lower levels of fertility and mortality. More than half of the world’s population now lives in countries where total fertility is 2.3 or less. However, even with fertility decline to replacement levels or below, the population will still continue to grow due to the momentum of its age structure. As was stated in the previous section, the latter now accounts for 75% of world population growth. Nevertheless, momentum effects and age structure are often ignored in observations of population change. To better understand the implications of changes in age structure for social and economic policy, the issue needs to be analyzed in some detail.

The demographic transition is taking place at a much faster pace in developing countries than has historically been the case in the now developed countries, and consequently population ageing is occurring at a more rapid rate in those countries. Developing countries not only have less time to adjust to their growing elderly populations, but they are at much lower levels of economic development than developed countries were when faced with population ageing. Two thirds of all older persons live in developing countries and their numbers and proportions are growing. These are countries least able to cope with the increasing numbers of elderly.

The rate of population ageing is furthermore modulated by migration. While immigration can slow down the pace of population ageing, because immigrants tend to arrive at younger ages, emigration of adults in their working age accelerates population ageing. Immigration of elderly retirees and return migration of former migrants can furthermore accelerate population ageing. The impact of migration on population ageing is usually stronger in countries with smaller populations due to the higher relative weight of migrants in these populations.

The changing age structure of populations has significant social and economic implications at the individual, household, community and societal levels. It also has important implications for a country’s development. The challenge is to distribute limited resources to ensure that the needs and rights of both young and old are adequately met, especially education and health for young people, and social, medical and financial support for the elderly. This will mean changes in approaches to education, employment, and health care. It will also mean changes in the relationships between generations.

A number of issues need to be considered when addressing the challenges of population ageing, including: gender aspects of ageing; changing family composition and family support systems; lifelong health and active ageing; contributions of older persons to family, community; poverty of older persons; pensions and social protection schemes; access to basic social and health services; discrimination, violence and abuse of elderly; human rights of older persons; impact of urbanization and migration on the elderly; older persons in emergency situations and creating an enabling environment for older persons. Reliable and timely data disaggregated by age, sex and rural/urban residence are essential for policy formulation and programme planning, as well as for monitoring and evaluation purposes, including monitoring of progress towards implementation of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing.

Older persons also require special attention since many of them are victims of discrimination, violence and abuse, including violations of their human rights. The experience of HelpAge International worldwide is that older persons are routinely denied both protection and recognition of their rights. Neglect, abuse and violence against older persons can take many forms, including physical, psychological, emotional and financial. Much of it is rooted in the fact that most elderly persons are no longer economically active. Some depend on others to assist them in daily tasks. Exclusion generates and deepens inequality. Some harmful traditional practices result in abuse and violence against older women, often exacerbated by poverty and lack of access to legal protection. The elderly poor are particularly vulnerable. Lack of power and status makes it harder for older persons to claim services, find out and negotiate what is due to them, respond to abuse, violence and neglect, demand information, and protest age and gender-related discrimination.

Methodology: Various indicators can be used to depict changes in age structure and shed a light on the situation of elderly in a population. For instance, use the relationships between generations (percentages of three large groups: 0-14 years; 15-64 years; 65 years and over), age pyramids, and/or trends in the index of demographic and functional dependency (able-bodied individuals that do not participate in the economy and dependent unemployed persons); life expectancy. The ageing index refers to the number of people over 65 years per 100 youths under the age 15 years. Another indicator of the age structure of a given population is the median age of the population. For a more dynamic view, use the growth rate (or absolute increase) by age groups. Use indicators of health and functional capacity of older persons and correlate with the age structure.

Primary Sources:

  • National censuses. Household, health, labour force, poverty surveys;
  • Specialized surveys of older persons (e.g. the SABE survey of PAHO), including on living arrangements;
  • Poverty or Living Standard Measurement Surveys (LSMS).

Secondary Sources:


  • United Nations (2008). Guide to the National Implementation of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. Includes publications on ageing produced within the UN system and directory of ageing resources on the Internet;
    United Nations (2006). Guidelines for Review and Appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing;
    HelpAge International (2002). Participatory Research with Older People: A Sourcebook;
    Research Agenda on Ageing for the 21st Century (2007 Update);
    Directory of Ageing Resources on the Internet:

Regional Implementation Strategies: