Source: The Weekend Australian, 16 August, 1997, (Australia Today: An 8-page special) p.4
'Put simply, we are having fewer children and living longer' JUST 4 per cent of the population was aged over 65 at the turn of the cen-tury. But 40 years into the new millennium the figure will have skyrocketed to more than 22 per cent. These are the statistics behind what has become widely known as the "greying of the population'. It is a demographic trend with profound policy implications in areas such as taxation, social security and health. The subject of reports by governments, economic advisory bodies and organisations such as the World Bank, it is also behind recent changes to retirement incomes policy and aged-care reforms. For while immediate concerns such as chronically high levels of unemployment dominate the political agenda, governments are all too aware that the changing age structure demands serious forward thinking. The number of people aged more than 65 is expected to increase from 2.15 million in 1995 to 5.48 million in 2041. This represents a rise in the proportion of over-65s from 12 per cent to 22 per cent of the population. Similarly, the proportion of people aged over 85 will more than double, from 1.1 per cent today to about 3.5 per cent. Two explanations for the trend are declining fertility and greater life expectancy. Put simply, we are having fewer children and living longer. Another big influence is immigration. The large number of migrants coming to Australia in the past 50 years, for example, is thought to have prevented our population from ageing more quickly than it has. At the turn of the century Australia had a young age structure with 35 per cent of the population under 15 (compared with 21 per cent today) and just 4 per cent over 65 (compared with 12 per cent). This is similar to the present age structure of Indone- sia, Malaysia and The Philippines. There were big fluctuations over the next few decades. Declining mortality and fertility saw the median age rise from 22.5 at the turn of the century to a peak of 30.8 years in 1946. Much of this was caused by low birth rates through the Depression. The trend was reversed in the post- war years with the high birth and immigration rates of the baby boom years forcing the median age back down to 27.5 years in 1971. Low mortality and fertility rates have caused a gradual rise in the age profile of the population ever since, although the greatest impact will be five to 10 years after the turn of the century when many of the baby boomers reach retirement. The impact of the ageing of the population is often expressed in terms of dependency rates-that is, the number of elderly and young children compared to the number of people of working age. By 2041, for every 100 people of workforce age there will be 36 elderly people and 29 child depend-ants. Overall the dependency ratio will increase from 50.3 per cent in 1995 to 63.6 in 2041. However there will be some variation among the States with South Australia having the oldest population and the Northern Territory the youngest. Tasmania is predicted to overtake South Australia as the State with the oldest residents and by the middle of next century could have a median age of 50, between 5.3 and 8.7 years higher than the national average. The Northern Territory on the other hand could have a median age up to seven years younger than the average. But demographers warn Australia's population will age less quickly than many other countries. Hong Kong, because of its very low birth rate, will have one of the oldest age structures in the world. By 2050, 34 per cent of its population will be aged 65 and over. Half of its residents will be more than 53 years old. On current trends, Italy, Japan, Germany and Greece will also have much higher proportions of older people than Australia. -MICHELLE GUNN
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