As countries like Japan and Italy prepare for the challenges of an aging population, African countries are focusing on the need for youth empowerment. Youth make up the next generation of workers, parents, and leaders in Africa; hence investing in them is top priority for the continent’s transformation. While empowering youth is important, African nations cannot ignore the outcome of greatly increased birth rates.
Since Africa is the most youthful continent in the world – two-thirds of the continent’s 1.1 billion people are younger than 35 – what will happen when the youth become elderly citizens? And what will happen to elderly citizens if the continent does not plan for increased birth rates now? The rise in the number of elderly citizens may take a strain on families and the incidence of aging-associated diseases like cancer will hit an all time high.
This situation is especially complex because agencies like the World Health Organization and United Nations Population Fund support the use of contraceptives to space out births’ for maternal and child health. The use of contraceptives is a controversial issue in Africa as opponents may argue that contraceptives will prevent women from having children. Proponents for contraceptives may find the concept ludicrous although in countries like Germany, where the use of contraceptives is widely accepted, women have fewer children or no children. Having children or not is one’s personal choice; the concern is the result of choices that a nation made.
West African nations are among the continents most fertile – the average woman in Niger has nearly seven children in her lifetime. With the current youth population, increased birth rates and use of contraceptives, African nations are facing an unforeseen future. Currently, aging Africans are facing new problems including the changing practice of extended families taking care of elderly members. Children are now migrating to other nations for better opportunities, leaving their parents to care for themselves. If African governments do not address current problems as well as prepare for the increased birth rates, it is likely that the future will bring many challenges to the aging population and continent as a whole.
African countries that currently have large youth populations are poised to experience a potential demographic boost to their economies. While such countries will see this population age into the workforce, they will also experience rising proportions of seniors with this group. It is critical for governments to plan now for the future with smart government policies. Training citizens to embrace the aging process and raising awareness of the challenges associated with this stage of life is important. Companies should also be encouraged to work with the elderly so as to improve their health, lifestyle and wellness.
Equipping older adults with coping skills, and encouraging people of all ages – especially the youth – to not smoke, do more physical activity, and practice moderate alcohol consumption and good nutrition will pay good health dividends later in life.
Sophie Okolo is the Founder of Global Health Aging.