By Mariela Jara
LIMA, Feb 6 2023 (IPS)
Latin America and the Caribbean is no longer a young region and it will be one of the regions with the largest aging populations by 2050, which poses great challenges due to the social inequalities the countries face, but also opportunities to overcome them.
“Currently in the region an estimated 8.1 percent of the population is over 65 years of age, and this percentage is projected to increase to 17 percent by 2050, higher than the global average,” said Sabrina Juran, a regional technical advisor on population and development for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
In 2022, the region was home to 658 million people, of whom some 52 million were older adults, creating great challenges for the countries in terms of work, health and pensions, in a context in which according to international organizations the economic slowdown will deepen in the region in 2023.
“I am 65 and employers already saw me as too old to hire at 35, and I did not manage to get another job as a nurse technician,” says Nelly García, who moved to the capital, Lima, with her parents when she was 10 years old from her hometown of Huancayo, a city in Peru’s central Andes highlands.
The case of García illustrates the labor problems faced by many older adults in Latin America, especially women whose job opportunities are often hindered by motherhood and their responsibilities to care for family members.
“Imagine at this age what chance of insurance or pensions exist for people like me or people who are even older and work in the informal sector,” she told IPS with bitterness, adding that “if the government does not care about children, it cares about us even less. They must think ‘let these old people die because they’re no good for anything anymore’.”
García lives in Breña, a working-class district of 75,000 people that is one of the 43 districts in the department of Lima. Since she failed to find work in any hospital 30 years ago, she has been selling flowers.
She had taken a break from her work as a nurse technician to raise her four children. When she sought to return to her profession, the doors of the hospitals slammed shut on her. “I was already seen as old at the age of 35,” she repeated several times.
She has social health insurance from her husband, who is about to retire from a book import company. “But his pension will be less than 200 soles (52 dollars); that will not even cover the electricity bill,” she lamented.
Peru, a South American country of 33 million people, is facing a severe economic, political and social crisis, with a poverty level that climbed during the pandemic to a national average of 30 percent, although in rural areas it is 45 percent.
There are more than four million people over 60 according to official figures, only one third or 35 percent of whom were in a pension system. And although 89 percent have access to public health insurance, coverage and quality do not go hand in hand
“I try to save up for when I’m older, although the truth is I don’t think I’ll reach the age of 75 because in my family we suffer from heart disease. But I’m not going back to the public health insurance system,” García said emphatically.
She talked about her experience of the system: “It’s an ordeal, you have to go to the hospital at dawn to make an appointment, they order tests for several months later and who knows when you’ll get the results back. If I go through the same thing now, I’ll surely die before they call me, so when it’s my time, I hope to leave in peace.”
García is referring to the Social Health Security, a public system that covers 35 percent of people over 60, which draws harsh criticism for its poor facilities, shortage of medical personnel and poor quality of care.
An irreversible path
On Jan. 12, the Division for Inclusive Social Development of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) presented the World Social Report on demographic change, which ratifies the global tendency that the population over 65 is growing faster than younger age sets and that people are living longer.
Greater life expectancy at birth due to the advancement of medicine and the decline in the fertility rate, which stands at 2.1 births per woman, are factors contributing to this trend.
Sabrina Juran of UNFPA told IPS from Panama City, where the U.N. agency’s regional headquarters is located, that the birth rate in Latin America is 1.85 and regional population growth is below 0.67 percent per year, both of which are lower than the global rates.
She said that according to the latest U.N. projections, there would be around 695.5 million inhabitants in the region in 2030 with a peak of 751.9 in mid-2050, after which the population would constantly decrease until reaching 649.2 million in 2100.
Juran explained that further reductions in mortality are expected to lead to a global average longevity of about 77.2 years in 2050 and 80.6 years regionally. Life expectancy at birth in Latin America and the Caribbean was 72.2 years in 2022, three years less than life expectancy in 2019 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This scenario means governments in the region must focus on meeting greater demands for healthcare, employment, housing, and pensions.
Juran said the growth of the working-age population – from 38.7 percent in 1990 to 51 percent today – can help boost per capita economic growth, known as the “demographic dividend”, which offers to maximize the potential benefits of a favorable age distribution.
“But this increase in the working-age population will not remain constant: it will peak in 2040 at 53.8 percent before decreasing,” she said. “This means there is a window of opportunity to be taken advantage of.”
The region faces steep inequalities. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Jan. 18, 22.5 percent of the population – in other words, at least 131.3 million people – were unable to afford a healthy diet.
“Countries must invest in the development of their human capital, guaranteeing access to healthcare, quality education at all ages, and promoting opportunities for productive employment and decent work,” Juran remarked.
She added that they must take measures to adapt public programs to the growing number of older people, establishing universal healthcare and long-term care systems, and improving the sustainability of social security and pension systems.
“At UNFPA we advocate measuring and anticipating demographic changes in order to be better prepared for the consequences that arise,” said the regional advisor.
She said the commitment is “to a world where people have the power to make informed decisions about whether and when to have children, exercise their rights and responsibilities, navigate risks and become the foundation of more inclusive, adaptable and sustainable societies.”
Achieving this demographic resilience, Juran said, starts with a commitment to count not only the number of people, but also their opportunities for advancement and the barriers that stand in their way, which requires transforming discriminatory norms that hold back individuals and societies.