By Libor Stloukal
Population Programme Service (SDWP)
FAO Women and Population Division
Although the ageing of rural populations is now well underway in a large number of developing countries, our understanding of this phenomenon's social and economic implications and its integration into development plans and policies remain inadequate. This paper first outlines national levels of urban and rural ageing in the years around 1990, and then presents an overview of the main developmental challenges that rural ageing tends to produce. Particular attention is given to issues relevant to agriculture and food security. It is argued that countries must respond to the various challenges posed by rural ageing and seize the opportunity to rethink their agricultural and rural development policies in order to promote progress for people of all ages. At the same time, more information is needed about the exact nature of the linkages between rural population ageing and social, economic and environmental developments in concrete settings. The author gratefully acknowledges the helpful comments of I.-E. Engh, Y. Lambrou, A. Marcoux, M. Villarreal (Women and Population Division, FAO) and M. Maetz (Policy Assistance Division, FAO), on a previous draft.
Population ageing - the growth in the proportion of persons aged over 60 - represents one of the most significant demographic processes shaping the world today. The trend is an inevitable product of the shift from traditional to more modern forms of demographic reproduction. Because of historical, political and cultural differences, and depending on where countries may be on the continuum of demographic development, the issues arising from population ageing take a variety of forms. Overall, the richer countries of Europe, North America and Oceania are much more advanced in the transition towards older age structures and face more serious ageing-related problems than the rest of the world. In recent years, however, ageing became perceptible in many developing countries as well. As indicated by the UN population projections (UN, 2000a), the phenomenon will be increasingly prominent in the future - although to different extent in different regions - and is likely to have significant consequences at both individual and societal levels. Furthermore, since relatively large shifts in age structures will be compressed into relatively short periods, developing countries will have less time than the developed ones to adapt to the challenges posed by population ageing (Mirkin and Weinberger, 2000; Sokolovsky, 2000; Grieco and Apt, 2001).
The purpose of this paper is to focus on the ageing of rural populations in developing countries. A brief overview of national levels of ageing comes first. This is followed by a discussion of some of the possible implications of population ageing for rural development. The argument is put forward that the transformations produced by population ageing could go well beyond changes in demographic structure, and thus deserve to be taken seriously by those concerned with agriculture and rural development.
In many poorer countries, rural populations have a tendency to age faster than urban populations (Marcoux, 1990; Martin and Kinsella, 1994; Skeldon, 1999). By far the most important determinant is rural-to-urban migration which comprises mainly adult people and thus increases the proportion of older persons 'left behind' in rural areas. Depending on the demographic characteristics of migratory flows, there can also be a negative association between rural-urban migration and rural birth rates (particularly if rural areas experience an outflow of women in childbearing ages), which in effect could speed up rural ageing. In some settings, ageing can furthermore be accelerated by the return of older migrants who have retired from the urban workforce. Increased mortality due to AIDS among younger adults can also play a role, especially in countries with high HIV prevalence rates. Improvements in the survival rates of older rural residents could likewise have an effect, although in most poorer countries this is unlikely to be a key determinant of changes in rural age structures. Although all these factors can in theory contribute to rural ageing, their relative importance will depend greatly on concrete conditions of a given geographic area.
The information available from national population censuses taken in 1985-1996 (Table 1) confirms that in most poorer countries, rural areas do have older populations than the cities. Of the 67 developing countries for which appropriate data are available (i.e. specified by age and urban/rural residence), in 53 cases the proportion of elderly in rural areas is greater than the corresponding figure for cities, and in 10 countries (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa) the proportion of elderly in rural areas is at least twice as high as that in urban settings. In other words, although a situation of higher levels of ageing in the rural sector is by no means universal, it nevertheless typifies a vast majority of developing countries, including some of the most populous ones. While countries with higher proportions of elderly in urban settings tend to have also older rural populations, the correlation is rather weak indicating that levels of rural ageing do not just 'mirror' those in the cities (Graph 1).
Data in Table 1 also highlight substantial differences between developing countries, both in terms of the levels of ageing and the extent of the urban-rural gap. Dissimilarities in the gender composition of older rural residents are also evident: in 40 countries the proportion of older rural women is higher (in certain cases much higher) than the proportion of older rural men; in the remaining 27 countries the opposite is true. To account for these differences, a thorough analysis would be necessary of the underlying patterns in fertility, mortality, and migration; as well as of the statistical criteria used to define rural and urban areas. A detailed country-specific analysis is not the aim of this paper, however.1 The important point here is that ageing in a large number of developing countries is predominantly a rural phenomenon, and it is thus in the villages that the consequences of ageing are likely to be most felt.
The significance of ageing vis-à-vis development lays principally in the fact that ageing ultimately affects social organization, production patterns, and the relevant societal institutions, including families and households. It can be hypothesized that the impact of ageing will be more acute in rural settings which experience rapid demographic change and where the flexibility of socio-economic conditions is limited due to existing environmental, cultural or political circumstances. However, there are important uncertainties with respect to the economic effects of population ageing on the agricultural sector. They are likely to be co-determined by factors such as population density; the proportions of people in different age categories engaging in economic activities; economic productivity; economies of scale; effects of agricultural technologies; organizational innovations; and social and economic policies.
A pessimistic prognosis might suppose that a quantitatively declining working-age population would reduce the growth of output and income, and possibly also the overall economic performance. Under such a scenario, the growth of the elderly population would increase the age-related dependency within the rural population and cause a demand for transfers of economic resources to the retired. The effects of this process could be wider than simply the economic impacts. For instance, an increasing gap may emerge between economically active and non-active persons, and the income differentiation among elderly people may grow. A significant part of the elderly population may then become marginalised and limited in opportunity, both economically and in access to economic resources, housing, health care and the ability to participate in social and economic life. Consequently, population ageing may intensify inter-generational income disparities, and thus exacerbate existing social inequalities within countries.
This is a bleak prospect, to be avoided if possible. However, if organizational and technological advances can be used to increase participation in work, improve the participation of older people, etc., then socio-economic patterns in rural areas can be adapted to demographic change. Insofar as these issues have been addressed in policy debate, they have been seen mainly in macro-economic terms: through the implications of declining working-age population, and the pressures which falling economic output and changes in production patterns are likely to place on economic performance and social security issues. In discussions of older people and development, the elderly are typically regarded as a constraint. But perhaps such conclusions are being drawn too quickly. The benefits of ageing are hardly noticed but they include the wealth of skills and experience that older people bring to the workplace, to public life and the family. The premise of this paper is that rural ageing should not be a priori viewed as a negative trend but rather as one that could present opportunities to appropriately adapt rural socio-economic structures in order to promote sustainable development.
If population ageing is to be perceived as an opportunity, then one must start from the view that the implications of population ageing are not determined in advance. How things evolve depends firstly on whether the key decision-makers have the incentives and opportunity to respond to the changes ahead, and secondly on how the issue is addressed in a range of policy arenas.
The paragraphs that follow sketch some of the main developmental challenges that rural population ageing tends to produce, most of which could have important repercussions for agricultural policies and programmes. Findings of empirical research are not reviewed, although some of them would certainly be worth examining in detail. The discussion is intentionally speculative as it is meant to provide food for thought, serve as a 'catalog' of issues that would be worth exploring, and thus stimulate further investigation in concrete contexts.
Adjustment to capabilities and needs of older persons
Quantitatively speaking, rural demographic ageing implies growth in the proportions of older age groups within the rural population. One straightforward implication of this is that developmental policies for the ageing rural areas should be meticulously tuned to the capabilities and needs of older persons. Overlooking the rising proportions of older persons would be discriminatory towards the elderly but also shortsighted. For instance, in rural settings where the social status of older persons is high and their decision-power significant, establishing collaborative policies towards the elderly could be crucial for the effects of rural population ageing to be favourable to the rural sector. At the same time, the fact that development interventions have different effects on different age groups has evident, yet not always appreciated, implications for the design and implementation of policies and programmes. Yet greater sensitivity to the elderly should not be viewed simply as a catchphrase of politically correct language. Instead, it should become a means to prevent rural policies from being inappropriate and, whenever possible, to guide policy-makers and programme managers towards wiser decisions.
Extension of working life, technical and organizational implications
In the more developed countries, retention of people in the labour force as they get older is now a commonly recommended strategy to deal with the economic implications of ageing. On the surface, this might seem to be a reasonable policy approach towards alleviating some of the negative effects of rural ageing in developing countries. In practical terms, however, this approach may not be applicable in a number of instances, for example in production sectors that have been declining because of restructuring or where heavy manual labour is required. Besides, in many settings the labour force participation of the elderly may already be close to its demographic threshold. This appears to be the case in a number of poorer countries where old people already work intensely even at very advanced ages, or in certain AIDS-stricken areas where the elderly are often forced to take over the work responsibilities of younger farmers affected by the disease. Such issues have to be examined carefully before measures to promote greater economic activity at older ages are proposed. But even when such measures are in order, the extension of working life should not be simply equated with a postponement of retirement: it implies new technical and organizational approaches to work and retirement, and generally more growth-oriented economic policies.
Effects on labour supply
In most developing countries, the ageing of the rural population has thus far had little overall effect on labour supply because sufficiently large numbers of young people have entered the rural labour force. This situation is unlikely to persist, however. It can be expected that in many countries the supply of agricultural labour will become increasingly tight as the relative numbers of those age-groups whose activity rates are highest will diminish due to the combined effects of migration to cities, fertility decline and, in certain cases, changes in age-specific mortality rates. This means that there may be serious obstacles to expanding agricultural production or even maintaining the existing production patterns, particularly if these rely on labour-intensive forms of farming. In fact, the outcome could be similar to the effect of HIV/AIDS which also reduces the amount of labour available and in the most affected areas now causes severe reductions in cultivated area, declines in crop variety and other undesirable changes in farming practices. Thus, future agricultural policies will increasingly have to take into account the possibility of declining agricultural labour supply resulting from demographic ageing. In some settings, agricultural intensification policies, such as large-scale irrigation, introduction of more labour-intensive crops, etc., may simply not be feasible because of population ageing.
Ability to respond to change
Like the ageing of individuals, demographic ageing tends to be associated with a declining ability of affected communities to adapt to change. This could be partly due to a loss of physical functions and a diminished capacity of older persons to absorb new knowledge and acquire new skills. But part of the reason could be that the elderly see little sense in adapting themselves when they perceive their remaining active life as being short. In conditions of advanced demographic ageing, the rural population may ultimately not be able to adequately respond to stimuli such as agricultural intensification or technological change. In the more developed countries, a partial solution to this problem is seen in the promotion of lifelong learning, which is believed to have the potential to neutralize the relationship between age and adaptability. The suitability of this approach to rural populations in developing countries remains to be tested but it is quite clear that its application would require significant shifts in human resource policies, such as agricultural extension programmes. This area could be a candidate for major innovations.
Effects on the integrity of rural communities
While the ageing of rural populations tends to be related to the geographic spread of fertility and mortality declines, rural-urban migration is usually the key determinant of ageing in rural areas. Over the longer term, migration can act to undermine the village communities as out-migration increases and migrants spend progressively more time at their destinations. On the household level, rapid out-migration of younger family members can seriously disrupt living arrangements and family networks. When the reproductive capability of a rural population reaches its limits, depopulation could be the end result. In some cases, this could lead to a social and economic collapse; in other instances it can create a precondition for immigration from neighbouring areas or countries. Thus, the transformations that could be triggered by out-migration and population ageing may far transcend those of demographic structure and could raise questions about the social integrity of entire rural regions. For instance, situations in which an important portion of the agricultural labour force are foreign workers could ultimately bring about considerable changes in the nature of rural communities. The whole relationship between rural population ageing and socio-political change requires much further investigation.
Gender aspects of rural ageing
Nearly everywhere, women live longer than men and over their lifetime have less opportunity to accumulate financial and other resources. Because men tend to marry younger women, women very often outlive their spouses. Older women are also less prone to remarry if their spouse has died, and are thus more likely to spend their old age without a spouse to provide support. In addition, in some countries widows in agricultural areas have no legal rights to their husbands' land and property, due to customary or even formal inheritance laws. Thus, older rural women frequently suffer multiple disadvantages arising from discrimination on account of old age, widowhood and gender. In societies that value childbearing capacity and sexual married status more than old age, older women may be particularly vulnerable. On the other hand, in settings where certain occupations or social roles are regarded as predominantly 'female', it may well be that rural women have better chances than men to continue working into old age, for instance as small-scale agricultural producers, traders, traditional healers, or providers of domestic help. Overall, however, there are reasons to be concerned about the wellbeing of older rural women because they normally represent the sector of the rural population that needs special assistance in critical situations. Clearly, good ethnographic studies are needed to identify how the gender-specific issues facing women, both young and older, are modified, exacerbated or diminished with age.
Family support systems in rural areas
In most developing countries, the elderly live in extended, multigenerational households and rely primarily on their adult children for financial support and personal care. Today, traditional family support systems in rural areas are typically under pressure from demographic, social and economic change. In setting where fertility has been declining, the elderly may have few adult children to provide support. In addition, many of these children may have moved away from their family homes. Younger women are entering the work force in increasing numbers and have less time than their predecessors did to care for elderly family members. However, it is in open question how quickly or to what extent these pressures will undermine traditional family support systems. At the same time, it is quite clear that public policies can have an important influence on the functioning and resilience of these systems, for instance by subsidizing family care through tax incentives or by encouraging multigenerational living arrangements. Unfortunately, far too little is known about the relationships between agricultural interventions and family support systems in the context of ageing.
When rural population ageing is accelerated by rural-to-urban migration then - other things being equal - the shift towards an older demographic structure could diminish the demands of the rural population on wetlands, forests and other largely unpopulated areas. If the elderly have reduced mobility, the need for commuting and the use of fuel for transport could lessen as well. Conversely, in conditions of only limited out-migration, an increase in the proportion of rural elderly could lead to an increase in the overall number of rural households. In the middle-income developing countries, such a trend can have important consequences for the use of natural resources. For instance, if the majority of households have a TV set, a refrigerator or other appliances that consume an amount of energy essentially independent of the number of people in the household, then an ageing population could contribute to increased per-capita energy consumption. These hypothetical examples indicate that rural ageing could have significant ecological side-effects that ought to be more researched and appropriately addressed in policies and programmes.
Heterogeneity of the elderly as a group
In all their activities, professionals dealing with ageing rural populations must recognize the diversity of the elderly population, which in any country represents a mixed group. Unfortunately, the tendency persists to refer to 'the rural elderly' as if they were a coherent, organized group rather than a statistical category. In reality, they are rich and poor, strong and weak, 'young old' and 'old old', and at times burdens, at times contributors. Equally important is the attention to regional variation in rural ageing, which can be significant even within relatively small nations. Failure to appreciate the heterogeneity of the elderly may affect how problems are defined, and ultimately determine how they are addressed. Stereotyping, particularly the kind that sees the elderly merely as victims in need of help, should be opposed at all times.
The evidence is accumulating that rural population ageing is now well underway in a number of poorer countries. The process is likely to lead to major, multiple effects on social organization, labour markets, agricultural production, food security, and the development process in general. However, there is nothing inevitable about these effects. At almost every point, decision-makers have options regarding the ways in which they respond to changing demographic conditions, and it will be their choices from among the gamut of possible options that will determine, along with other factors, the resulting agrarian outcomes. Population specialists now face an important task to provide decision-makers with relevant and convincing information about the exact nature of the linkages between population ageing and the various aspects of demographic, socio-cultural, economic and environmental change in concrete rural settings. Such information is urgently needed if we are to proceed from the stage of acknowledging the challenges of rural ageing to that of taking appropriate action.
1For an in depth regional analysis of present levels and future trends in population ageing throughout the developing world, see an earlier paper in this series prepared by the FAO Population Programme Service.
Grieco, M. and Apt, A. 2001. Development and the ageing of populations: a global overview by experts on ageing in Africa. In: The World Ageing Situation: Exploring a Society for All Ages, United Nations: New York, pp. 13-37.
Marcoux, A. 1990. Ageing rural populations in the developing countries: patterns, causes and implications. United Nations International Conference on Aging Populations in the Context of the Family, Kitakyushu, October 1990. In: Ageing and the Family, United Nations: New York, 1994, pp. 144-148.
Martin, L.G. and Kinsella, K. 1994. Research on the demography of aging in developing countries. Demography of Aging, National Academy Press: Washington, pp. 356-403.
Mirkin, B. and Weinberger, M. B. 2000. The demography of population ageing. In: United Nations Technical Meeting on Population Ageing and Living Arrangements of Older persons: Critical Issues and Policy Responses, New York, February 2000, UN Population Division: New York, pp. 1-1 to 1-17.
Skeldon, R. 1999. Ageing of Rural Populations in South-East and East Asia. Sustainable Development Department, FAO: Rome.
Sokolovsky, J. 2000. Living arrangements of older persons and family support in less developed countries. In: United Nations Technical Meeting on Population Ageing and Living Arrangements of Older persons: Critical Issues and Policy Responses, New York, February 2000, UN Population Division: New York, pp. 4-1 to 4-36.
UN. 2000a. World Population Prospects: The 1998 Revision, Vol. III: Analytical report. UN Population Division: New York.
UN. 2000b.Demographic Yearbook: Historical Supplement 1948-1997 (CD-ROM). UN Population Division: New York.
Table 1: Population aged 60 and above (in %) by urban/rural residence and sex and the urban/rural ratio of percentages of the elderly; selected developing countries
Graph 1: Proportions of persons aged 60 and above in urban and rural areas, by country