By 2020, the global population of people over 60 will outnumber children under five for the first time. How will our ageing communities affect urban life and where is the phenomenon most noticeable?
One of Tokyos many grey-haired taxi drivers once challenged me to guess his age. Trying to be polite, I pegged him at 64. Im 82, he grinned.
Such an admission wouldnt usually inspire confidence in a passenger. But in Tokyo, where almost a quarter of the population are over 65, working so late in life isnt just a personal triumph; its fast becoming a social necessity.
Japan, which has the highest proportion of people over 65 in the world, is ahead of other countries in embracing ageing as an urban phenomenon. Its capital city is a good example of an appropriate urban environment for older people: for one, youll rarely find steps in public buildings or train stations in Tokyo without an accompanying ramp or lift. Everything from the traffic lights to elevators to the ATMs talks at you, often in a squeaky voice. This isnt a cutesy Japanese foible, as many foreign visitors assume its to ensure that signals and instructions are also communicated to people with poor eyesight.
Cities have traditionally run on young blood, defined by energy, innovation and change, while getting older has been associated with embracing a quieter life in the suburbs or rural areas. And yet, as a result of the economic development and advances in healthcare in the 20th century, the world is both urbanising and ageing. These twin challenges are converging to create a new phenomenon: silver cities.
By 2020, the global population of people aged 60 and over will outnumber children younger than five years for the first time. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2050, there will be 2 billion people aged 60 years and older, up from 841 million today.
Older populations are expanding faster in cities than in non-metropolitan areas in OECD countries. In Lisbon, Milan, Barcelona and Tokyo, nearly a quarter of the population are already over 65. Contrary to popular assumptions, its not just a problem for Japan and Europe: by 2050, the population aged 65 and over in developing countries is expected to more than triple, outpacing the global growth rate. According to the WHO, 80% of people over 60 will be living in developing countries within five decades.
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