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4 Jun 2016

Why has the world stopped growing?

And what do we do about it?

Most of us have seen the headlines about ageing. They tell us we are about to enter a new age and that this is a fundamental turning point in human history. The United Nations says the ageing demographic is unprecedented, pervasive, enduring and has profound implications. 

And these are not far off, gradual changes. Unless you happen to be living somewhere like South Sudan, these changes are going to affect you and your family within our lifetimes.

We are, to put it simply, living longer (thank you modern medicine!) and having fewer babies. This change has been happening over many decades in the developed world. But much of the developing world has now entered a period of “super-ageing”, ageing at three times the speed of the developed world. 

On the face of it, New Zealand, where I live, has no cause for alarm with our population ageing at a slower rate than many other developed countries. We have a birth rate above the OECD average with a relatively youthful developed country population helped along by our post-war baby boom (1945 – 1959 ). In the 20 or so years following the war we bred rather like those cute bunnies infesting our farmland, with a higher peak birth rate than any other developed country. 

However, even as one of the youngest of the family of developed nations the picture is very different depending on whether you live in our largest and fast-growing city of Auckland or just about anywhere else in the country. As fast as Auckland expands other parts of the country shrink. And this trend is even more marked in the working-age population. Growth outside Auckland is mostly in the over 65s.

Media headlines about ageing tend to cluster at the doom and gloom end of the scale. Calling the trend a “population bomb”, “age quake” or talking about a “tidal wave” of pensioners isn’t very cheering. In reality, this is a huge achievement for the human race. On an individual basis living longer is a triumph, collectively it shouldn’t be seen as a disaster. 

But there’s no doubt this is a massive change and challenge. We’re all scratching our heads about how to respond – health care costs, rising dementia rates, shrinking labour force. What’s to be done?

I intend to search for some answers. Thanks to a Trust set up in memory of Winston Churchill I’ve been given a scholarship to spend a month as a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford University Institute of Population Ageing. My plan is to examine the learnings from countries ahead of New Zealand on the ageing curve and steal their best ideas. I’m interested in what ageing well means for us as a country, at the community level and as individuals. 

So, this afternoon I hop on a plane heading north, spend a rather tedious six hours at Auckland airport and then onwards to Oxford. I’ll post all I’m learning here on this blog. I know I’ll encounter opposing theories, information overwhelm and a lack of answers in some areas. But as Winston himself said:

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”.

I’m ready.