Demographic & social challenges

The ageing population, another shock to the global system

Less spectacular than the digital transformation and less alarming than climate change, the third global phenomenon could have an equally profound impact on our societies: the ageing population. From public policy to the structure of national economies, along with the rise of new products and services to target this audience, we look at the changes that are already under way and will only become more significant in the future.

Published on 11 April 2022


In the course of human history, 2018 might well be seen as a turning point. It was the year when, for the first time, planet Earth had fewer children aged under five than adults over 651. Around the world, a combination of falling birth rates and rising life expectancy is leading to the same outcome. The world’s population has never been so old and the demographic projections2 being made by the United Nations leave no room for doubt: this trend will only accelerate in the years ahead. The proportion of the population aged over 80 is set to increase from 9% (143 million people) in 2019 to 16% (426 million) by 2050. Every continent is affected by this change, although Africa and the Middle East will be less impacted than Europe and North America (25% of the population). In Japan, where the ageing population trend is most marked, the proportion of seniors was around 30% in 2020 and is expected to reach 35% in 2040.

Public authorities face a range of societal problems

The global demographic change is creating a series of major challenges. From rises in public spending to the provision of help for elderly people in their homes, along with employment for seniors, accessibility to public spaces and social connections between individuals, many existing issues will need to be faced in new ways.

“One example would be the question of employing staff to help the very elderly and people who need help to be independent,” explains Mélissa Asli-Petit, who has a PhD in sociology and specializes in the field of ageing. “The challenge of renewing the generations is only one part of the problem. Today, the limited appeal of working in these areas has already led to a dearth of staff. How are we going to deal with that?” Another example is people’s access to public services. With an ageing population, the challenge is just as much geographical (because people who find it difficult to access healthcare become vulnerable) as it is technological (with disruptive digital technology and online-only access to public services, such as taxation). “Another major concern will be the risk of making existing social inequality — which is particularly linked to gender — even worse,” underlines Mélissa Asli-Petit. “The difference in pensions between men and women is averaging 40% in France. And among people living precariously, there is a huge over-representation of women aged over 85 who live alone, according to research by the charity Les Petits Frères des Pauvres.”

In general, societies are expected to meet the specific needs and expectations of every kind of senior citizen, where they are: active, vulnerable or reliant on help. For the sociologist, the challenges being faced today are the result of a societal change. “Since World War II, adult life has been a cycle with three stages: starting with education, followed by work, and then finally retirement. But the boundaries between these different periods have gradually become more porous.” Education, work, potential career breaks, training, working during retirement… all these new situations need to be taken into account if people are to be supported throughout their lives. It means the challenge is not just about providing funding as individuals become less independent and creating services to meet their needs. “It’s a change that means thinking about new approaches and making allowances for the different kinds of lives that people lead (particularly in terms of their independence), and maybe introducing a ‘flexicurity’3 model like they have in Denmark, for example? Why not?”

A challenge that goes beyond the ‘silver economy’

However, an ageing population is not just an issue of public policy. Adapting to new ways of doing things and the needs of a growing proportion of consumers is also creating an opportunity for many businesses. Since the start of the 2000s, the term ‘silver economy’ has referred to a range of markets and activities directly linked to elderly people. Healthcare, independence, food, accommodation, services, transport, communications, leisure… a tailored approach can be applied in many sectors of the economy.

“Nearly all retail businesses would benefit from adapting to this accelerating demographic change,” underlines Mélissa Asli-Petit, who is also the head of Mixing Générations, a company providing research and consultancy in longevity, seniors and the silver economy. Some have already started to respond to these changes, including several of the leading cosmetics and clothing brands. While there is a focus on the products (clothing suited to the daily lives of seniors, packaging that is easy to open, etc.), the process needs to go even further. As the sociologist points out, if supermarket chains, for example, are to meet the needs of elderly people, they need to rethink their business models and make their spaces more inclusive, in terms of the accessibility of shelves, the lighting, the legibility of printed text on products, etc. “The situation with the silver economy is paradoxical,” she says. “In France, people have been talking about this a lot over the past decade and some major investments have been made. Money is being given to start-ups and there is investment going into technology. But sometimes people forget about individuals’ everyday needs. What most people actually want is help from another human being.”

Here too, the key appears to be the ability to invent new approaches. The residential sector in France, for example, is creating various alternatives to the option of an all-encompassing care home, such as the intergenerational co-living solution developed by a start-up, Colette Club. The company connects people aged under 30 who are looking for a place to live with seniors who have a room free in their house or apartment. Meanwhile, the country’s postal network, La Poste, has developed a “Check on my parents” service that provides regular in-person visits by delivery staff to elderly people – to make them feel less alone. The intergenerational theme has also been taken up by Tom & Josette, a company with a network of ‘intergenerational’ crèches in care homes or dedicated housing for seniors.

Nevertheless, the scale of the challenge means there is still a great deal to do, and to invent. “But what if the answer was to link some of the key issues facing us today, like climate change and an ageing population?”

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