Old, poor and lonely? Not at all. On the contrary, a study illustrates the positive effects of ageing societies. Even the environment could benefit from the demographic change.


The risks are well known: ailing pension systems, rising healthcare costs, falling economic growth – ageing in the developed countries poses enormous challenges for us. But is the situation really just bleak? Or is the "greying" of the population also possibly exerting a positive effect on our life?A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and Washington University has been investigating this question.
In their study entitled "The Advantages of Demographic Change after the Wave: Fewer and Older, but Healthier, Greener, and More Productive?", they take the example of Germany to address the opportunities and potential of the demographic change. In the second oldest country of the world with a birth rate of 1.4 children and a median age of 46.2 years, the share of over-65s will increase over the next two decades from 21 percent today to 33 percent.

The study examined the social implications up to the year 2050 and arrives at a surprising result. Taking into account all demographic factors, the optimistic finding identifies five possible benefits of an older society: 

1 We will become more environmentally friendly…

…because older people consume less and are more sedentary than younger ones. It can therefore be assumed that an older and smaller population will emit significantly less CO2 into the atmosphere, which entails a positive effect on global warming. If senior citizens were to retain their present consumer behaviour, emissions could even fall to the level prior to the 1950s in the next three decades.

2 We will become more healthy...

…because not only life expectancy is increasing but also the number of years in which we live in good health. According to the study, a German in 2050 will on average spend around 80 percent of his or her life in a good state of health compared with just 63 percent today. This will also enable considerably more people in future to lead a long and self-determined life.

3 We will become more productive...

…because the ratio of work, free time and housework will in future shift in favour of free time. With the proportion of time spent working falling from 14.5 to 11.9 percent by the middle of the century, according to the study we will have more time for leisure. And we will also have more time for our children and grandchildren, which could exert a positive impact on intergenerational relationships.

4 We will have a greater quality of life...

…because more and more people with a high level of education are ageing. Back in 2008, around 20 percent of the over-50s in Germany had a high level of education, but according to the study this will be 34 percent after 2050. Better educated, healthy for longer and more women in the workforce: this could even offset the productivity losses caused by the shrinking workforce.

5 We will have more money...

…because assets will in future be distributed among fewer children. The younger generations will benefit fundamentally from this as they are also set generally to earn less. The heirs will be able to use the money to increase their pensions or support their own children financially.

The future isn't bright but it also isn't as gloomy as it is sometimes painted. We have the opportunity to change things.

Nobody can say conclusively today how great the effects of the demographic change will be and the team of researchers is also aware of this. "But we ought to start discussing the potential and the necessary changes in our society," says Fanny Kluge, co-author and researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Rostock. "The future isn't bright but it also isn't as gloomy as it is sometimes painted. We have the opportunity to change things."

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