The Future Is Now: Preparing for Africa’s Aging Population
Pictured: A preschool class in South Africa
Africa is the most youthful continent in the world. According to Voice of America, approximately two-thirds of the continent’s 1.1 billion people are younger than 35 years old. What will happen when these youths become older adults?
While investing in young people is important for the continent’s transformation, Africa also needs to prepare for a growing older population that will present new issues in the decades ahead.
By the end of this century, Africa will be home to almost 39 percent of the world’s population, including more than 700 million people aged 60 and older. Continuing progress in public health and medicine promise to make that population boom, and that longevity, possible. However, this demographic phenomenon can be expected to strain families, communities, and nations, with the incidence of aging-associated diseases climbing to all-time highs.
Even now, older people face serious challenges on the continent. According to the Global AgeWatch Index 2015, “Despite Africa’s rapid economic growth, poor social and economic wellbeing for older people means most countries continue to rank in the bottom quarter of the Index.” The AgeWatch index does not tell the entire story for the continent, since only 11 of Africa’s 54 countries were evaluated due to lack of data. However, it provides insight into the state of older people around the world.
Africa’s Population Aged 0-4 and 65+ (millions)
Other continents are confronting the challenges of rapid population aging, but Africa has time and a unique opportunity to develop policies and practices that will improve quality-of-life outcomes for its future aging demographics. Health care is key to this preparation. Nigeria, for example, is Africa’s biggest economy, yet government spending on health is very low—only 4.3 percent of its budget. Consequently, many of those who cannot afford quality care are left out. As Africa becomes a wealthier continent, it must manage that growth inclusively so more people are well, productive, and happy.
African countries with sizable young populations are poised for a demographic boost to their economies. Today’s African youth is generally optimistic about the future, active on social media, and a source of innovative ideas. But unfortunately, they are in great need of jobs, mentorship, and other ways to help them reach their potential. It is high time that the continent taps into the power of intergenerational collaboration. Putting young people and older adults to work in shared environments would benefit both African employers and their age-diverse employees. Stimulating the entrepreneurial spirit is also important, according to the World Economic Forum, as “more and more youth in Sub-Saharan Africa are looking to entrepreneurship to secure their future.” Older adults can take part through mentorship or joining their younger colleagues as business partners. As young people join the workforce, employers and governments should develop smart policies for workers of all ages.
Africa’s Young Population
% of population under 15 years old
Source: Population Reference Bureau, 2012 World Population Data Sheet. Map by Carl Haub and Toshiko Kaneda
Educating citizens to embrace the aging process and raising awareness of the challenges and opportunities of the later stages of life should also be a priority. It can be emphasized again that African societies should invest more in health and wellness. This includes equipping older adults with coping skills, and encouraging people of all ages—especially youth—to stop smoking, be physically active, drink little or moderately, and make healthy food choices.
Africa has another means to ensure that its transition to population aging is a successful one. That opportunity is to capitalize on culture – on the high level of respect afforded older adults. African elders are important members of their communities. They hold places of influence and are sought after for wisdom and guidance by their peers, younger generations, and society at large.
Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop, has put this attitude into words: “As we get older, our rights do not change. As we get older, we are no less human and should not become invisible.”