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Ageing populations need not be disastrous for Western governments

By Valerie Yule - posted Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Myths and fallacies influence governments in deciding population policies. Even the 2000 report on Replacement Migration from the United Nations Population Division is a fable in its arguments about continuing population growth being essential in developed countries (never mind in the developing ones.)

The report argued that the demographic characteristics of the very low fertility countries must change in order to keep an economically sustainable age-structure. Pro-natalist policies can be promoted to avert a supposed disaster of ‘excessive population ageing’. Yet encouraging more local births may be evading and ignoring important issues - and would be a crying national shame while more than 23 million refugees are homeless and hungry.

Critics of the UN report include Jill Curnow in Myths and the Fear of an Ageing Population and Henri Leridon from the National French Institute for Demographic Studies. Leridon argued that the United Nations work on replacement immigration was: ‘To want to maintain at all costs the ratio of [aged to youth] is truly to try and fill the Danaïde's well’.


One reason why a developed country fears an ageing population is from seeing the rural problems when the young people leave for cities. However, this is a problem of the lack opportunities for the young - a lack of desirable employment - not the problem of too much work for the young that the ‘ageing population’ scare envisages.

The fallacy that growth must be never stopped is the major part of the myth of disaster from ageing populations. This has been promoted by pressure groups that benefit from population growth through escalating values of real estate, mass markets, demands for building, and, in supporting immigration, importing cheap docile labor for unpleasant jobs, and already-skilled personnel that have not cost the reception country any expense in education and training.

However, there is less recognition that growth has downsides. One review of population crises by Russell and Russell surveyed the lessons of past civilisations that have grown beyond the resources available to them, and collapsed. The story of Easter Island is like a microcosm of what we can see elsewhere in the world today. Prosperity is not dependent upon continual quantitative growth and can be destroyed by it.

‘Growth’ is currently like riding an accelerating bicycle and having to keep pedaling because otherwise we would fall off. Yet at some stage there must be a stop, or a crash. Many developed, as well as developing countries, show problems that are increasing by growing population further.

There are alternative advantages for profits and employment in a stable or even declining society. A look around any country shows significant qualitative improvement. It is possible that there should be no shortage of jobs and profits without requiring continual increased consumption and waste of diminishing resources.

If all the jobs that needed to be done were being done, including conserving resources and preventing waste, there need be no unemployment, even if there were fewer people needing new housing and commodities. But the arguments for fearing an ageing population paradoxically include lack of younger workers to support them.


Mind-boggling figures have been presented by the Replacement Migration report such as that to keep the support ratio of workers to dependents constant. South Korea, for example, would need 94 million immigrants per year, almost twice its current population, adding up to 5.1 billion by 2050. Immigrants age too, and so according to the growth myth, even more immigration would then be needed to support them.

There is overwhelming evidence against the myth that without continuing population growth, an ageing population could not be supported by its working members. Over the last fifty years the proportion of Australians aged under fifteen has shrunk to 20 per cent while those aged over 65 has increased to 12 per cent, with no noticeable difficulties. Over the next fifty years, proportions are expected to be 16 per cent and 24 per cent.

Support ratios of workers to the elderly of 4:1 are not a problem for Western countries. The total dependency of old people in nursing homes is only on average 7 months for men and 2 years for women. On average, people require two years of substantial health care before their deaths - regardless of whether they are young or old.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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