What factors might prevent Peak Boomer from occurring in 2035?

Laura Dineen has written her second installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, she questions how the effects of an impending peak boomer situation could be mitigated. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

In my previous post, we talked about our globally accelerating and ageing society, as Baby Boomers continue to flood the over 65 age group. Using the latest projections from the United Nations Population Division we estimated the year 2035 to be Peak Boomer. The point at which the ageing population’s rate of acceleration begins to diminish.

How certain can we be of the UN’s population projections and the year at which we will hit Peak Boomer? The maths behind the projections is certainly solid, and uses an accounting framework for the three major demographic components of change; mortality, fertility and immigration. But any major deviation from these estimated demographic components of change could blow the Peak Boomer projection off course.

The ageing population of today, and the Peak Boomer prediction of 2035 is determined by the high fertility levels post-WW2. Fertility since then has reduced, coupled with the likelihood that these Boomers will survive to older ages.

The first component that could affect the Peak Boomer prediction then, is mortality rates. Crude death rates (deaths per 1,000 population) have been decreasing globally from 19.1 in 1950 to its lowest point, 7.7 in 2010. However, the projections do not continue to decrease past this point and in fact are seen to be rising again. The actual figures in more developed countries have risen from 2010 to 2015 and are set to continue to do so. Why has there been a rise in mortality rates? And in particular the rise in crude death rate in high-income countries? Our ageing population may hold the answer here. With more strain being put upon societies’ health and social care systems by our growing aged population, the increased healthcare requirements alone may be enough to significantly impair the system as it stands. If we add in restrictions on funding, austerity measures and other increasing demands on healthcare provision in many jurisdictions, you get a perfect storm where the supply can’t meet the demand.

Another issue adding to the stress on the healthcare and social support system is the fact that the older population itself is ageing, with an increasing share aged 80 years or over. Driven again by the Boomer cohort, between 2030 and 2050, the global population that is aged 80 years or over is expected to rise to more than 20%, from today’s 14%. Might this pressure on the system cause a tipping point that could bring the Peak Boomer date closer than predicted? That scenario might come about more gradually but another consideration is the breakout of a new or mutated disease. Epidemics that we are ill-equipped to fight against could cause a more rapid change in population structure. Particularly as much older people are more susceptible to infection and more vulnerable to the effects of disease.

One major cause of population ageing is fertility decline. In most of the world, fertility rates have been falling since the Baby Boom, with the exception of Africa where fertility started falling from 1970. The assumption is that fertility will continue to decline, as it has since then, albeit at a slower rate. But what if there were a sudden increase in fertility? A new societal pressure to breed? A mutation or medical advances resulting in a vast increase in fertility, twins or triplets? A major political or cultural occurrence similar to what sparked the post-WW2 Baby Boom? Any significant increase in fertility over the next ten years could have an impact on the Peak Boomer prediction by changing yet again the age distribution in society and slowing down its acceleration.

The final component of demographic population change is migration. Migration between nations does nothing to change the global Peak Boomer prediction. However, there are significant differences between the rate of ageing across the populations of the world, some driven by migration, that I will be exploring further in the next article.

© Laura Dinneen 2018