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April 18, 2016
With rising life expectancy and falling birth rates in Latin America, what was once regarded as an eternally young population is set to have a demographic revolution. This change in the make-up of Latin America’s population is set to translate into new challenges for the region that has also historically maintained the title as the most unequal part of the world. The new demographic era in Latin America has been marked out over the last century with fewer children being born per couple and a rise in the number of the elderly; changing the landscape of cities and towns across Latin America. This rise in the region’s ageing population is good news for Latin America to the extent that with a rise in life expectancy, the quality of life also improves. However, the region needs to begin putting into place the right systems in order to cope with the current change in the demographic.
From 1950 to 2000, the population of Latin America ballooned from 161 million to 512 million and is estimated to reach 734 million by 2050. Interestingly, the Economic Commission for Latin America & the Caribbean (ECLAC) predict that the population will decrease between 2050 and 2100 to 687 million due to the ever-aging population. The UN agency ECLAC attributes this significant population increase to the fact that the life expectancy in the region rose by 19 years from 55.7 years in 1950 to 74.7 years by 2015. This is remarkable when one considers that in the first five years of the century, life expectancy was 10 years lower than the average industrialised country. More so, when taking note of the fact that from 2010-2015 this number is set to half to just 5 years below the average of industrialised countries. Another decisive factor in the changing face of Latin America is the regional drop in the birth rate which has fallen from being one of the world’s highest of nearly 6 children per woman to 2.2 children per woman. As it currently stands, Latin America has a birth rate below the global average of 2.3 children per woman.
A new approach is now needed in relation to the adoption of public policies in health, social security, protection, education, recreation and community activities, targeting this new demographic. The change in Latin America’s population can be seen when comparing early 20th century families which had grandparents who were maybe in their 50s; nowadays families in Latin America have grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. With people living more or less half of their lives considered as elderly, the outlook for living 30 years after retirement, means that major social changes in Latin America have taken place.
The health and medical environment of Latin America will certainly change as policies will no longer only be able to take into account typical illnesses for children or young people. Instead they will have to begin to expand to include chronic and degenerative illness ailments which are becoming more widespread and common in Latin America. Whilst the increase in the size of the older population of Latin America isn’t a health system disaster, it will quickly become one if it is not prepared for it. Public policies will need to consider the new reality of families who will need more support when caring for elderly relatives or of older adults taking an active role in caring for their grandchildren. Awareness in Latin America is one of the biggest problems it is likely to face due to the ageing population and lower birth rates in the region. This opens up the possibility for a number of older people in the region to become poorer and more vulnerable; having to sell their homes to cover their own medical or living expenses.
One area in which the ageing population may positively affect Latin American society is in education. With a decreasing birth rate, the number of children and adolescents in proportional terms will make it easier for Latin American governments to extend high-quality education to those it might not have been able to help in the past. The rise in an ageing population also prompts for on the whole a more experienced workforce creating the space for the increase in retirement age. This is crucial if governments in Latin America are to keep the pension system from exploding. The Latin American labour market will therefore have to find ways to retain employees longer or to at least employ more elderly workers who can contribute their skills and experience to the younger workforce. The importance of the actions taken by the governments of Latin America today cannot be overlooked, as it paves the way for tomorrow’s elderly Latin American population.
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