Data from the 2022 Census revealed a new configuration of the Brazilian population: the proportion of elderly people aged 65 or over reached a record 10.9%, while that of children and young people up to 14 years old fell to 19.8%. With this, the country advances in the demographic transition towards population aging that is already observed in European countries, where 21% of the population is over 65 years old.
The Brazilian age pyramid, which had a wide base, shortened and took on the shape of a teardrop with the enlargement of the top. In 12 years, the share of elderly people in the population increased from 14 million to 22 million inhabitants. In 2010, they made up 7.4% of the population. In 1980, this number was even lower: only 4% of Brazilians were 65 years of age or older. Meanwhile, the total number of young people up to 14 years old shrank by 5.8 million individuals. In the previous Census, they accounted for 24.1% of the population.
The combination of reduced fertility and mortality rates led to an increase in the number of elderly people, whether in Brazil or the European Union. The IBGE Population Estimates and Projections manager, Márcio Minamiguchi, explains that the result was expected, but the speed was surprising. “The Census reflects this context of a decrease in the number of births and an increase in the elderly population. The tendency is for this process to become more accentuated in the short term.”
On the European continent, with the Industrial Revolution, improvements in sanitary conditions and medicinal and pharmaceutical advances brought down general mortality and infant mortality rates. On the other hand, urbanization, the universalization of education, the increase in the population’s income, the emancipation of women in the job market, the postponement of the decision to have children and family planning strategies drove the decline in fertility.
Meanwhile, in Brazil, the sociocultural and economic conditions that lead to population aging occurred concomitantly and have been observed since the 1960s. In that decade, the process of industrialization of the economy began, which attracted workers to the cities. Added to this are improvements in nutrition and basic sanitation conditions and expanded access to health services and medicines.
This led to a change in the causes of death: diseases related to aging, such as cancer, cardiorespiratory and chronic diseases, became the biggest causes of death, surpassing deaths from infectious, respiratory and parasitic diseases. In this way, the general mortality rate fell by half in just 20 years: it went from 20.9 deaths per thousand inhabitants, in 1940, to 9.8 in 1960. In 2015, it stood at 6.08. Life expectancy, which was 45.5 years in 1940, reached 75.5 in 2022 for both sexes.
Mass vaccination campaigns, prenatal programs and breastfeeding, in turn, contributed to the reduction in infant mortality. The death rate for children up to one year old was 146 deaths for every thousand live births in 1940. In 2015, the indicator was 14 for every thousand. In 2021, it was 11.2.
Another factor that drove population aging was the drop in fertility, which the IBGE attributed to women’s greater education. Since the 1960s, access to education has expanded with the massification of university education. Furthermore, there was the dissemination of contraceptive methods, such as the pill, and women began to postpone motherhood.
Fertility in Brazil went from 6.28 children per woman, in 1960, to 1.9 children per woman in 2010, and 1.76 in 2021. In 50 years, the drop in this rate was 70%, according to IBGE.
“There is a change in mentality in relation to how many children you want to have. There was an ideal of a large, agrarian family in the 1950s, in which it was necessary to have many children to help with the work. With greater urbanization, this large family model it no longer fits”, says demography professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Luciana Lima.
Preparing for change
Europe has undergone a series of changes over more than 200 years of population aging and, in this long period, has strengthened the social welfare system, achieved economic and even democratic stability. “The issue is that if we are experiencing a more accelerated process and do not consider it from a social point of view, we will have a problem that can arrive faster, since Brazil has a highly numerous population and a large number of socially vulnerable people”, ponders Lima.
She argues that public policies must address demands related to health promotion (services provided by the SUS and care at home) and social assistance. Adaptations will also be necessary in urban transport, so that it is more accessible to the elderly, as well as housing conditions and leisure options, for example.
This scenario of fewer births and more longevity has another numerical effect: the reduction in the workforce. Therefore, some countries adopt measures to increase the birth rate and restore the Economically Active Population (EAP), given that it has reached 63.9% in the European Union.
In the case of Germany, there are financial incentives such as the possibility of dividing the leave period between parents and the so-called Elterngeld (parents’ money), compensation for the financial loss of those who stop working or reduce their working hours to care for their children. There are still migration policies, but foreigners have been the target of racism in European countries.
The Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea) estimates that the total number of inhabitants in Brazil should shrink from 2050 onwards and reach 177.9 million. Of these, 29.5% will be elderly people aged 65 or over. Young people up to 14 years of age should make up only 13.5% of the population, and the EAP, aged 15 to 64, could represent 57%. In 2022, the EAP was 69.3% of the population. This proportion of the population poses challenges for governments to finance the social security system.
“Brazil has prepared itself, but it still needs to do a lot. The country could have made much more investment in youth to better take advantage of the window of opportunity, when the number of young people is the largest among population groups. I’m talking about education, opportunity to generate employment and income, plus the opportunity to stay alive too”, says Junia Quiroga, representative of the United Nations Population Fund in Brazil (UNFPA).
Lima agrees. “The more these people are included in the job market and contributing to Social Security, the better for the system,” she adds. One of the strategies is to direct investments towards education and increased productivity, since, with fewer young people, the demand for places in schools will be lower and investments can be focused on the quality of education. “We need to think today about a future in which the elderly will be the majority. Aging is a right and a natural process of life.”