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Graying population challenging the BRICS

By Shi Wei | 2013-08-29 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Population aging is already posing enormous challenges to the whole world and will only continue to do so throughout the 21st century. According to the BRICS Joint Statistical Publication 2013 published by the National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBSC) this March, the total aging population (60 and over) in the BRICS countries was about 328 million in 2010, 340 million in 2011 and 355 million in 2012, accounting for 11.3%, 11.6% and 12.1% of the BRICS’ total population. Population aging has exerted and will continue to exert increasing influence on the BRICS’ socioeconomic development. Comparative study on aging populations across the BRICS will help both to illuminate the implications for individual BRICS countries and more broadly to shed light on the demographic problems faced by emerging economies.


Based on estimates in the World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, released by the Population Division of United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, statistics in the BRICS Joint Statistical Publication 2013, and the Statistical Communiqu� of the People's Republic of China on the 2012 National Economic and Social Development, also released by NBSC, I try to analyze the commonalities and disparities between the BRICS over a longer time span using four indicators: sheer size of the aging population, aging population as a percentage of the total population, the rate at which the population is aging (at which the 60+ demographic is expanding), and the correlation between the level of economic development and population aging.


A country or a region is considered to have become a graying society if 10% of its total population is 60 or over or if 7% of its population is 65 or over. By this standard, Russia, China and Brazil had all become graying countries by the end of 2012; India and South Africa had not. Among the three graying BRICS, Russia has the highest proportion of aged population; with 26.7 million at the end of 2012, people aged 60+ account for 18.7% of its total population. China, in second place, has 193.9 million, constituting 14.3% of its total population, while Brazil’s 20.4 million account for 10.53% of its total population.


The rate at which the population is aging means how fast a country or a region is entering a graying society during a certain period of time or how fast it is moving from one level (10% of its total population is 60 or over or 7% of its population is 65 or over) to a higher level (20% of its total population is 60 or over or 14% of its population is 65 or over).


Within the BRICS, Russia was the first nation to become a graying society, passing this mark around 1970. Current projections put India and South Africa as both becoming graying societies by 2020 (with 10.7% and 10.4% of their populations reaching 60+ respectively). Using these rough demarcations, I compare how fast the BRICS populations aged and are projected to age between 1970 and 2020. The leader at from the start, Russia saw (and will see) the greatest expansion of the 60+ demographic during these 50 decades, followed by Brazil, China, India and South Africa. At an increase of 15.6%, Russia’s has seen an increase of 15.55%; Brazil, 10.6%; and China, 10.4%.


Decade by decade, the speed of population aging varies more prominently between different BRICS countries. Over longer periods, population aging does not occur at a steady rate, varying even within individual countries. While Russia’s population is expected to age fastest between 2010 and 2020, its population has aged faster in other decades. The other four BRICS, however, will all enter their fastest period of population aging between 2010 and 2020; Brazil is expected to be fastest, followed by China, South Africa and then India. 


Brazil will also be the fastest to double the proportion of its 60+ demographic relative to the total population, in an estimated 23 years. China and India are close behind, at 25 years and 29 years respectively. Though Russia was the first to become a graying society, its elderly population is not currently expanding at a high rate. In fact, it is estimated that it will take 35 years for the proportion of the 60+ population to double. South Africa is slower still though, with an estimated 41 years.


From 2015 to 2100, the BRICS will witness an ever higher degree of population aging. Because of their total populations and the speed at which their populations are aging, China and India will always have the largest elderly demographic throughout the 21st century. What’s more, the size of India’s aging population will surpass that of China’s sometime between 2065 and 2070. Aging populations in South Africa, Russia and Brazil will also continue to increase, but their numbers will remain far less than those of China and India. 


The correlation between the level of economic development and population ageing can be measured in terms of the GDP per capita and the old-age dependency ratio (percentage of people aged 65 and older versus people aged 15-64). In 2011, Russia was the highest in both categories, with a GDP per capita of $13,284 and an old-age dependency ratio of 27.47%. This indicates that Russia’s advanced state of economic development has laid the pecuniary base for effectively addressing population aging. At $5,450, China’s GDP per capita ranked the fourth, but its old-age dependency ratio is the second highest at 19.67%. Therefore, China currently faces the double burden of continuing to develop its economy and addressing its rapidly expanding elderly demographic. Brazil’s GDP per capita ranked second at $12,692, and its old-age dependency ratio of 15.84% is lower than China’s, but population aging is also affecting its economic development. Both South Africa and India still have a younger population and low old-age dependency ratios, meaning that their economic development may still benefit from their respective demographic dividends (a societal condition in which a high ratio of the population is of working age) in the decades ahead.


Population has always been one of the fundamental factors that influence socioeconomic development. The structure of population growth has, and will have significant impact on the socioeconomic landscape of the BRICS countries as well as the international community. Comparative analysis of aging populations in the BRICS countries, aimed at elucidating their characteristics over various periods, will help scholars and policymakers understand the correlation between the structural demographic change and lay the basis for sustainable economic development.

Shi Wei is from the School of Sociology and Population Studies from Renmin University of China.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 476, July 17th, 2013.

Translated by Jiang Hong

Revised by Charles Horne