Population Aging Is Not the End of the World

Population aging is a universal phenomenon. However, while most paint it as a global crisis, it might not be as bad as you think. Prof Stuart Gietel-Basten, a renowned demographer, has years of experience of working on population issues. His work is primarily based around trying to better understand social and economic policy challenges of aging. He believes the current way aging is perceived is overly simplified. The number of people age over 60 is growing rapidly and, it is said, will put pressure on health, pension and political systems. This often causes panic amongst policy makers. Prof Gietel-Basten seeks to unpack this problem with his research, looking into the actual issues that needed to be addressed and how to adapt to it. Aging is inevitable and population aging is irreversible, but it is not the end of the world. 

Prof Gietel-Basten’s work focuses on three aspects. The first area is to develop a multidimensional view of population in general with an emphasis on aging. Instead of merely looking at the number of people of a certain age, his theory advocates on studying how certain population interacts with institutions and, in turn look at how the characteristics of this population changes over time. Rather than just saying the number of people a certain age group is going to increase, Prof Gietel-Basten suggests developing more complex projections and scenarios factoring in their income, education, health and skills, as the characteristics of different age groups will change over time. Developing new scenarios to think about not just what the future will look like, his work also projects what are the potential trajectories that the future of aging could take and how can we choose the future that we want.

The second area is about the conceptualization of aging and how the society communicates aging. Times have changed but the perception on the cut off age of 65 remains. A 65 year-old today is completely different from a 65-year-old 100 years ago and a 65 year-old in Hong Kong is definitely different from a 65 year-old in Egypt. For this reason, Prof Gietel-Basten and his colleagues in Austria and the USA are searching for alternative ways of measuring aging by looking into the characteristics of people, not just their age but other aspects of their existence as well. He suggests when discussing prospective aging, remaining life expectancy might be a more appropriate measurement. Essentially his study is about reframing aging away from the perception that everyone at the age of 65 will be the same towards the idea that different people will have different needs, and those needs can be measured more effectively at a more granular level, helping policy makers to plan for those who are going to be in need of certain services and diminish the number of people who are in need as well.

The third area is more empirical studies on policy making with an emphasis on the link between gender and old age. Men and women have different characteristics and needs at older age. In general, life expectancy of men is shorter than women, implying that there are many more females than male in older age. At older age, sex ratio becomes larger. While the life expectancy of men is shorter, women are more likely to be disadvantaged and prone to ill health over the life course. Prof Gietel-Basten and his team are trying to explore in more depth the causes and consequences of the skewed sex ratios at the regional level. The significance lie in the fact that men and women have different needs in terms of policy, goods and services. With better understanding on this gender dimension from measuring it from a demographic perspective, aging policy can be adjusted to be more gender sensitive.