The “silver tsunami”: our aging population

The world’s population has exploded since the industrial revolution, quadrupling in the 1900s to more than 6 billion. It is now 7.9 billion, and while the rate of growth has dropped, estimates in 2020 predicted it would increase to a whopping 9.9 billion by 2050.

In Australia, estimates 10 years ago predicted an increase of 15 million to 38 million by 2060. Apart from the increasing pressure placed on cities and infrastructure by this growth, there is a growing shift in population demographics.

Over the past century, improved living conditions and medical technology combined with birth control have contributed to lower birth rates and higher life expectancy – the current life expectancy in Australia is 81.5 years.

Thus, in countries with active birth control, including most of Europe, Japan, China and Australia, birth rates are not keeping up with increased lifespans. This phenomenon, which is increasingly hard to sweep under the carpet, brings challenges and opportunities.



As older populations are growing in countries like Australia, people reaching retirement are tipping the scales when balanced with those in the workforce. In 2018 the number of people over 85 was expected to grow from 0.4 million to 1.8 million in 2050.

Some of the most pressing challenges of this imbalance include the economic, health care, housing and support needs of older adults.

A government report in 2013, “An Ageing Australia: Preparing for the Future”, found that national income and productivity was already slowing considerably, and predicted that ageing will have a major impact on government budgets.

Other social trends that have created greater diversity in older adults’ backgrounds and careers, as well as family support structures, also impact their economic and support needs.

Some proposed measures to deal with this included raising retirement/pension age (which is already up to 67 and projected to increase to 70), accessing older adults’ housing equity and creating health care reforms to lift productivity in the health sector – the largest hit by the demographic shift.



While older adults have typically been treated in hospital, in the future they are more likely to have home- or community-based care with roaming medical services that are cheaper and more wide-ranging.

Other changes – already seen in other countries – could involve a shift to day procedures instead of hospital stays, supported by community healthcare, and expanding the roles of healthcare professionals.

We can learn from countries like Japan, Switzerland and Canada, which aim to create more retirement homes and aged care facilities, serviced by communities of physicians to improve coordination, access and lower costs.

Other shifts could include a focus on improving quality of life instead of merely prolonging life and dragging out the years of poor health. This requires a substantial move towards preventative health (e.g. healthier diets and exercise), and empowering people to take charge of their own bodies.

Other lessons we can take from the so-called “Blue Zones” with healthy centenarians include adopting simple lifestyles with regular activities to unwind and destress, a sense of purpose, treasuring family, and nurturing social networks.



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