For the first time in human history, since the year 2000, the world has more people sixty years or older than children aged zero to four (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society: June 2010). And according to James Vaupel from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research,a baby born today can on average expect to live to around 100 years old. That means that the human race has been gaining an extra 2 and a half years in longevity per decade – that is a statistic which I find just staggering!An ageing population was one of the most talked about issues at the European Population Conference, which took place in Vienna last week. I was one of the 800 people gathered in the city’s university to hear from scientists and policymakers about issues as diverse as migration, maternal mortality, land use and sexual and reproductive health.

One of the consequences of an ageing population is an increase in the demographic dependency ratio – that is the ratio of those typically in the labour force to those typically out of the labour force. And according to Eurostat’s projections, Europe’s  labour force is set to decline in number after 2014.  During the policy sessions held at the conference, several potential solutions to this problem were discussed, including migration, later retirement ages and part-time working.  There was also an interesting discussion about how we structure our lives. For example,  if we can expect to live to 100 years old, does it make sense to cram education, family and career into the first 65 years of life, and then spend the next 35 years in retirement?

When considering an ageing population and a decline in Europe’s labour force, there is a need to look afresh at some of our immigration policies. The member states of the European Union have agreed to develop a common immigration policy. But it is important to remember that individual member states can go way beyond the policies of the EU. Here in the UK, the Government recently announced a temporary cap on the number of migrants coming to the UK from outside the EU, while the UK Border Agency and the Migration Advisory Committee run consultations on what the permanent level of immigration should be. The new limit will be imposed as of April 2011.

All of this offers interesting food for thought, especially in today’s economically competitive market, as members of the European Union strive for sustainable and inclusive growth, as part of the Europe 2020 strategy . Migration and an ageing population are both population variables which we are considering exploring as part of the ‘People and the planet’ study, which will look at the role of global population in sustainable development.  We are seeking the latest scientific evidence to inform our study, and so have issues a call for evidence. For more information, or to view the call for evidence, please see our website.

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