- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 7, 2002

MADRID The predictions are almost cataclysmic: In 50 years, if trends continue, one-third of the world's population will be older than 60. Those 2 billion seniors would outnumber the world's youths.
Even before then, gains in longevity could bring a worldwide economic crisis, experts warn. With the population's proportion of taxpaying workers shrinking, national budgets could be overwhelmed in trying to provide retirement and health benefits for the elderly.
"By the mid-2020s, virtually the entire developed world will be one big Argentina unless some serious reforms are made," said Paul Hewitt of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
So, tomorrow, representatives from 160 countries and international organizations begin a five-day United Nations conference in Madrid to grapple with the challenges posed by the graying of humanity.
The United Nations said older populations significantly will change patterns of "savings, investment and consumption, labor markets, pensions, taxation health care, family composition and living arrangements, housing and migration."
The pace of aging is faster in the developing world than in developed countries, giving the poorest societies less time to cope. The ramifications could be serious as the elderly become an additional burden to the traditional scourges of poverty and disease.
Delegates to the Second World Assembly on Aging the first one was 20 years ago in Vienna, Austria will try to agree on a plan to address a host of aging-related issues: retirement age flexibility, living with dependency, elderly benefits, technology and the aging process, and death matters such as euthanasia.
The meeting chairman, Juan Carlos Aparicio, Spain's labor and social affairs minister, said Wednesday that "60 to 70 percent" of the plan already had been agreed on in preparatory negotiations.
Nevertheless, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, from the AARP to the Red Cross of Mongolia, have scheduled their own meetings over the weekend to push for firm commitments.
"We want to ensure there will be clear and comprehensive solutions, not just a magnificent closing ceremony and pledges that two or three years later everybody has forgotten," said Hector Maravall of the Spanish trade union CCOO.
A key issue is aging in developing countries. Now that family planning programs have lowered birth rates, populations are aging faster than societies can cope, the United Nations said. With limited governmental means to provide for elderly care, the burden is expected to fall on already struggling families.
"In Africa, because of the AIDS epidemic, it is often the grandparents who are taking care of children," said Eduardo Rodriguez, president of the Spanish Confederation of Elderly Organizations and co-chairman of the nongovernmental meeting.
A projected drop in the ratio of working-age people to retirees from the current 9-to-1 to 4-to-1 by 2150 means taxes won't be able to cover as much of social security costs as they do now, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said.
Governments will have to borrow heavily for retirement payments, and baby boomers will be cashing in savings, reducing the capital available for business investment and pushing up interest rates, a panel of 85 world figures commissioned by the center warned in a report to be released at the conference.

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