The way the term is used blinkers the public’s perceptions of an ageing population

Keywords / Sunday, February 12th, 2023

While there is little disagreement about the demographic reality of an ageing population, the term can be framed in different ways, with profound implications for social cohesion and public policy, explains SHANNON ANG.


An ageing population is one where the ratio of older to younger people is increasing. Why does this happen? Two main factors are at play: people are living longer (i.e., increasing life expectancy) and having fewer children (i.e., declining fertility) than before.

Demographers and policymakers rely on several kinds of statistics to understand and depict population ageing around the world, most of which are based around the (arbitrary) age threshold of 65. For instance, the old-age dependency ratio refers to the number of people aged 65 and above, compared to those aged 15-64. “Dependency” here refers to economic dependency. The underlying assumption is that the younger working population (i.e., those aged 15-64) will need to support the older non-working population. Singapore also publishes a variant of this number (what it calls the old-age support ratio), which uses the base population of those aged 20-64 instead. Also commonly used are the terms “ageing society”, “aged society”, and “super-aged society”, which refer (respectively) to countries that have more than 7%, 14%, and 20% of their populations aged 65 and above.

In public discourse, an ageing population is usually depicted negatively. Terms like “silver tsunami” evoke the image of a looming natural disaster about to inflict us with a heavy burden. Much of this is driven by economic anxieties around two issues: older people are less likely to work, and more likely to have health conditions compared to younger people. A smaller working population means a shrinking tax base to support public expenditures; at the same time, a larger population of those with health conditions means we must spend more on healthcare infrastructure and services to cater to the expanded need. Older persons are therefore often seen strongly (even solely) through the lens of health. For instance, the governmental office in Singapore responsible for coordinating efforts around our ageing population (i.e., the Ageing Planning Office) is housed within the Ministry of Health. Singapore has responded to the twin issues of work and health by encouraging people to work longer (e.g., raising the retirement and re-employment ages), and to lead healthier lives (e.g., through preventive health measures like encouraging screening).

But an ageing population need not be seen as a threat. Beyond staying economically productive, older adults can contribute to society in many ways. For instance, they can build communities and advocate for positive social change. They can pass on their diverse experiences, memories, and skills to the younger generation. In doing so, they provide a sense of cross-generational continuity within the families, neighborhoods, and societies in which they are embedded. Upcoming cohorts of older adults in Singapore are more educated, affluent, and diverse than those that came before. It remains to be seen how we will harness their latent value for the good of society.

— By Shannon Ang, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Nanyang Technological University.