ONE of the most striking sights for an African visiting a European city for the first time is the number of old people up and about, going about their business.
In much of Africa, elderly people are relatively few compared to the number of children and youth, averaging just 2-4% of the population, and old people rarely live in cities—the hallmark of retirement for many Africans is to leave the hustle and bustle of the city and go live quietly in the village.
A new report by ratings agency Moody’s indicates that by 2020, 13 countries in the world will be “super-aged”, that is, reaching a level where one in five people is 65 or older.
Today, just three countries—Japan, Italy and Germany are “super-aged”, with more than 20% of people there older than 65. In the next six years, these will be joined by the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Portugal, Slovenia and Croatia, as well as Hong Kong, South Korea, the US, the UK and New Zealand.
Governments in most developed countries are struggling to keep up with pensions and retirement benefits, as more and more people live longer, and there are fewer young people to work and support the aged.
But Africa is the world’s youngest continent, where 60% of the populations is currently younger than 25 years. Africa is witnessing one of the most radical demographic shifts in human history – from 1 in 10 children in 1950 to 1 in 2 children by 2100. In the next 35 years Africa’s under-18 population will increase by two-thirds, reaching almost a billion by mid-century.
Although fertility rates are expected to continue declining over the next couple of decades, almost 50% of Africa’s population will still be younger than 25 years by 2050.
The surge in young adults in the next few years is expected to give the continent’s labour pool a boost, which could translate into a sharp rise in economic growth—the so-called “demographic dividend”.
But this window of opportunity will be short—by 2050, more that 7% of Africa’s population will be older than 65, the level at which a country/continent is characterised as officially aging. In absolute terms, the number of people aged 65 and older in Africa is projected to increase by 108m (or 301%) between 2010 and 2050—with the oldest proportions of people being found in northern and southern Africa, regions which are already older than the rest of the continent.
Curved ball in the data
Good health care, sufficient food and reasonable levels of security all contribute to longevity. The impact of HIV and Aids on life expectancy is well documented, but malaria has a great bearing too—a study in Ghana suggested that living in a malaria-endemic area costs residents six years in life expectancy.
But the data isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Data from the UN’s World Development Indicators shows that the chances of a newborn today surviving to age 65 is actually higher in fragile and poor Somalia and South Sudan than in Africa’s two lead economies - Nigeria, Angola or South Africa.
Despite high GDP growth, income inequality in many prosperous African countries today means that the benefits of wealth are only reaching those already rich, while the poor get poorer.
Data from the African Development Bank (AfDB) shows that overall, Southern Africa is the most unequal part of Africa. Namibia, Comoros, South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland count among the continent’s top ten most unequal countries, and the most striking increase in inequality is found in South Africa, whose Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) has risen from 58 to 67 since 2000, and Central African Republic (CAR), whose Gini coefficient has risen from 43 to 56.
Granted, HIV and Aids has a huge bearing on life expectancy in southern Africa, but when inequality is mapped against survival to age 65, the data overlaps almost perfectly—the most unequal countries are those with the lowest chances of reaching age 65.
The highest chances of surviving past age 65 in Africa is in the “usual suspects”—Cabo Verde, Mauritius and Seychelles. But Rwanda comes up as the country where a newborn today is most likely to live to 65. Since the 1994 genocide, equity-oriented national policies have led to a doubling of life expectancy, and it is on course to be the first in Africa to meet the UN millennium development goals’ health targets.
Rwanda’s child mortality has experienced the most dramatic scale-back ever documented, falling at a pace of 11.1% per year, and is now in line with the global average. Today 97% of Rwandan infants are vaccinated against 10 diseases, and rates of under-five mortality, maternal mortality, and deaths due to tuberculosis and malaria, have fallen, along with the burden of HIV and Aids.