Demographic transition


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THE 21st century will witness a gradual transition to an ageing society the world over. The process which first started in low fertility western societies and in Japan is now spreading to the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Countries like China and India will not only be at the forefront in terms of absolute number of total population, but also in terms of absolute number of the elderly (60+) population. In brief, the long term impact of decline in fertility and reduction in the size of family will lead to a decrease in the population of children (0-14 years), which in turn will push up the population in the working age group.

Depending on the decline in fertility and mortality rates and the increase in the expectation of life, this will lead to an increasing proportion of the elderly after a time lag. A greying of the population is inevitable and one must understand its implications. Paul Wallace1, a popular writer, dramatically describes this phenomenon as ‘agequake’. If we understand the implications of ageing, agequake will not descend on us unexpectedly like an earthquake with death and destruction all around. Instead, we will be prepared to face a world converging on the elderly.

In his recent book, Understanding Greying People of India, Arun P. Bali2 has put together a set of papers commissioned by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR). He rightly points out that the elderly are more vulnerable than younger persons to social and economic hardships because, ‘in the process of development, poor sections lose ground in relative and perhaps also in absolute terms.’ This may mean that apart from an increase in the elderly population, the population of the elderly poor will increase.

A comparative account of the elderly in India is presented by S. Irudaya Rajan and his colleagues3 in another recent publication, India’s Elderly: Burden or Challenge? They point out that while the increasing numbers of the elderly is attributed to demographic transition, ‘their deteriorating condition is considered as the end result of the fast eroding traditional family system in the wake of rapid modernisation and urbanisation.’



Given the size and striking diversity of India, it will be hazardous to generalise on the impact of urbanisation and ‘modernisation’ on the elderly. In a recent survey of the elderly in a middle class locality of New Delhi (1997), we found that rapid urbanisation and the consequent increase in housing shortage tends to perpetuate the joint family system.

This is because most young married sons do not have the capacity to move out and pay exorbitant house rents. The result is a perpetuation of two and three-generation families staying together, creating perpetual tension between the generations, often leading to serious mother-in-law and daughter-in-law conflicts.

In order to understand the social, psychological, economic and other implications of an ageing population, one cannot rely only on Census data or for that matter, only on the demographic perspective. Specialised studies and in-depth interviews of the elderly would provide better insights than a statistical approach. Nevertheless, one does need a statistical account of the elderly for policy making, planning and specific programmes to help the elderly through governmental as well as non governmental efforts. The object of this paper is to give some highlights of the emerging demographic scenarios based on the latest data generated by the Census of India, NSSO and relevant United Nations publications.4



In 1991, when the last decennial Census was undertaken, the population of the elderly (60+) in India (excluding Jammu and Kashmir where no Census could be undertaken because of disturbed conditions) was 57 million compared to 20 million in 1951 (when the first Census after Independence was conducted).

* According to the official projections of the Registrar General, India, in 2001 the elderly population is estimated at 71 million, and 114 million by the year 2016 (the year for which the ultimate projections were made).

* The United Nations projections (medium variant) put the estimated number of elderly in India in 2000 at 77 million. The projection for the year 2025 is 168 million and for 2050 it is 326 million. These are frightening numbers: an elderly population of 20 million in 1951 increasing to 326 million in 2050.

* If we look at the proportion of the elderly to the total population from absolute numbers, we find that in 1951 it was 5.4% of the total population while in 1991 it was 6.7%. According to the Registrar General’s projections, the figure will be 8.9% in 2016.

* According to the United Nations projections, in 2000, the elderly will account for 7.6% of India’s population. By 2025 the comparable figure will be 12.7% and by 2050 it will be 21.3%.

* It should be noted that the proportion of 60+ female population is invariably higher than that of the male population. According to the UN projections, in the year 2000 the 60+ male population will constitute 7.1% of the total male population, while the comparable figure for 60+ females is 8.2%. By the year 2025, the male and female proportions will be 11.9% and 13.4% respectively, and by the year 2050, the comparable figures will be 20.2% for males and 22.4% for females. This is because of the higher life expectancy of females compared to that of males.

* According to UN estimates, during the period 1995-2000 in India, the life expectancy of males stood at 62.3 years while that of females was 62.9 years. For the period 2020-25, the figures are 68.8 years for males and 72.1 years for females. For the period 2045-50 the estimates are 73 years for males and 76.9 years for females. It may also be noted that over the decades, the gap between male and female life expectancy is estimated to increase. In this situation at least, the gender gap affects the males adversely.

* The ageing of population consequent on the change in the age structure will be evident from the fact that all through the last four decades, the growth rate of the 60+ population has been consistently higher than that of the total population. During 1951-61, the decadal growth rate of the 60+ population in India was 26% compared to the growth rate of 21.6% for the total population. During the decade 1981-91, the comparable figures were 31.3% and 23.9%. The same story is repeated when we consider the male and female population separately.

Looking at regional variations we find that in 1991, three states in India, namely Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar had more than 5 million persons in the 60+ category. It may be noted that in most of the states the population of 60+ males exceeded that of 60+ females, notably in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. But in Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat, the 60+ female population exceeded the 60+ male population.

Kerala had the highest proportion (8.8%) of 60+ population in 1991, followed by Himachal Pradesh (8.1%), Punjab (7.8%), Haryana (7.7%) and Tamil Nadu (7.5%). Among major states, the lowest proportion was in Assam (5.3%) followed by West Bengal (6.1%), Bihar (6.3%), Rajasthan (6.3%), Gujarat (6.4%). Madhya Pradesh (6.6%), Andhra Pradesh (6.8%) and Uttar Pradesh (6.9%).



According to the 1991 Census, there were 22.2 million elderly (60+) workers in India: 17.8 million males and 4.4 million females. This implies that 39.1% of the total 60+ population were workers. The male workforce participation rate was 60.5% while it was 16.1% for females.

There were more than a million elderly workers in each of the following states: U.P. (4.3 million), Bihar (2.3) , Maharashtra (2.2), M.P. (2.0), Andhra Pradesh (1.9), Tamil Nadu (1.7), West Bengal (1.3), Karnataka (1.2) and Rajasthan (1.0). The elderly workforce participation rates for these nine states are as follows: U.P. (45%), Bihar (42.4), Maharashtra (39), M.P. (46.1), Andhra Pradesh (43.4), Tamil Nadu (39.9), West Bengal (30.8), Karnataka (37.3) and Rajasthan (36.4). Andhra Pradesh has the highest female workforce participation rate (24.2%) among the elderly and West Bengal, the lowest (6.5%).



The distribution of the elderly workforce in nine industrial categories adopted by the Census is as follows: (i) Cultivators 55.9%, (ii) agricultural labourers 22.4, (iii) livestock, forestry etc. 1.6, (iv) mining and quarrying 0.2, (va) manufacturing etc. in household industry 2.4, (vb) manufacturing etc. in other than household industry 3.9, (vi) construction 1.0, (vii) trade and commerce 6.6, (viii) transport etc. 0.9, (ix) other services 5. It will be seen that over 78% of the elderly work force is engaged in agricultural activities. In the case of female workers, the figure is over 84%.

In the absence of any social security in the agricultural sector, the elderly fare badly and this is more true of the female workers. Even in the non-agricultural sectors, there is some social security only in the small organised sector. The problem is most acute in the informal or unorganised sector.

The National Sample Survey (52nd Round, 1995-96) collected data on the economic dependence of the elderly. The all India picture is as follows: Among the elderly rural males, 48.5% claimed that they were not dependent on others, 18% were partially dependent and 31.3% were fully dependent on others. In the case of elderly rural females, 70.6% were fully dependent on others, 14.6% were partially dependent and only 12.1% said that they were not dependent on others.



The urban scene was as follows: 51.5% of the elderly males claimed that they were not dependent on others, 29.7% were fully dependent and 16.9% were partially dependent. In the case of urban females, 75.7% were fully dependent on others, 11% were partially dependent and 11.5% were not dependent on others. In West Bengal, over 88% of the rural females and 85% of the urban females were fully dependent on others. These figures are the highest among all states.

In Kerala, which has the highest proportion of elderly in India and has several social security schemes, 73.6% of the rural females and 76% of the urban females are fully dependent on others. This shows how vulnerable elderly women are even in Kerala, known for its high order of social investment. The economic dependency ratio among females is the lowest in the rural areas of Himachal Pradesh where 48.7% of the females are fully dependent on others. Himachal has the highest ratio of economic independence (23.6%) among females in rural areas. A remarkable aspect about Himachali women is little appreciated: Because of the massive migration of men from the rural areas to the cities all over India, the women are left to fend for themselves, look after the children and the elderly as well as cattle and whatever land they possess.

The NSS statistics reveal that even the elderly females in the rural areas of Himachal Pradesh have to fend for themselves and not depend on others. The rural Himachali women have no alternative but to ‘empower’ themselves.

The NSS data provides details about the category of persons who support the economically dependent elderly – children, grandchildren, spouse and others. In India as a whole, children support 73.2% of the rural males and 76.5% of the urban males and grandchildren support 4.8% of the rural males and 5.2% of the urban males. In the case of elderly females, children support 69.9% of the rural females and 67.9% of the urban females. The share of grandchildren is 5.2% and 5.5% respectively.



In brief, over 75% of the economically dependent elderly are supported by their children and grandchildren. This does indicate the almost total reliance on the family in the case of the elderly who are not economically independent. The figures for Kerala are telling: 83.2% of the rural elderly males who are economically dependent are supported by the children. In the case of urban elderly males, the figure is almost the same: 83.7%. In the case of females, the comparable figure is 72% both in rural and urban areas. The solidarity of the family sustains the elderly. But is this solidarity cracking up? Neither the Census nor the NSS can provide any data on the perception of the elderly. For this, one has to look to indepth case studies and surveys of the elderly.

We shall present some highlights of a survey which we conducted in a middle class locality in New Delhi (1997).5 While one cannot generalise from such a small study, it does give a glimpse of what is in store for the elderly in India. Our survey revealed that 97.4% of the elderly think the joint family system is breaking down and 93.1% think the generation gap is widening in India and respect for the elderly is dying out. When asked about the role of family support in the future, 93% said that the family support system will decline and the elderly persons must learn to be self-reliant.

Over 81% of the elderly confessed to facing increasing stress and psychological problems in modern society, while 77.6% said that the mother-in-law daughter-in-law conflict was on the increase. When probe questions were asked, 62.9% of the elderly felt that the role of grandchildren will decrease in future while 82.8% said that the role of television will increase in future. Over 87% of the elderly stated that the government was not doing enough to take care of the elderly in India and about 38% supported the right to die (euthanasia) movement.

It must be noted again that our sample was confined to a middle class urban locality. Things would be much worse in poor localities as also in rural areas. Nevertheless, we do get an idea of the perception of the elderly which is not likely to differ substantially in rural and urban areas. As we have observed earlier, the extent of dependence on children is more or less the same in rural and urban areas. In short, it would be unrealistic to assume that in the years to come the government will step in to really take care of the elderly. Hope still lies in the solidarity of the family.



Undoubtedly, elderly widows are among the most vulnerable sections of India’s population. We have conducted a detailed analysis of marital status in each state of India covering every individual district (based on unpublished 1991 Census data obtained from the Registrar General). Some highlights are presented below:

Of the total 60+ males in India, 3.5% are ‘never married’, 80.7% married, 15.5% were widowers and 0.3% divorced or separated. In the case of 60+ females, 1.4% ‘never married’, 44.2% married, 54% were widows and 0.4% divorced or separated.



Among the major states, West Bengal had the highest proportion of widows (65.1%) followed by Karnataka (63.2%), Andhra Pradesh (63.1%), Tamil Nadu (60.3%) and Orissa (60.2%). Overall, Pondicherry had the highest proportion of widows (67.7%). On the other hand, states with a low proportion of widows are Nagaland (24.5), Sikkim (32.1), Haryana (36.5), Mizoram (38.7) and Punjab (39.5). These figures are affected by a range of demographic, economic, health and socio-cultural factors.

If we break down the 60+ age group into 3 sub-groups we find that the percentage of widows is 46.3 in the 60-69 years, followed by 66.1 in the 70-79 age group and 69.8 in the age group 80+. The highest proportion of 80+ widows was in Himachal Pradesh (80.9%).

The total number of 60+ widows in India in 1991 was 14.8 million while the number of widowers was 4.5 million. Let us look at the absolute number of 60+ widows in some of the major states of India: Uttar Pradesh (1.8 million), Maharashtra (1.6), Andhra Pradesh (1.4), West Bengal (1.3), Tamil Nadu (1.2), Madhya Pradesh (1.2), Bihar (1.1) Karnataka (1.0).

Our district-wise analysis shows a high incidence of widows among the elderly females in West Bengal. In Bankura district, 72.4% of the 60+ women are widows. In Mayurbhanj district of Orissa, 66.7% of the elderly women are widows. In contrast, in Tuensang district of Nagaland, only 19.7% of the elderly women are widows. Without in-depth surveys and studies, it is difficult to comment on this striking diversity in the incidence of widowhood. This should merit high priority in social science research. Our sociologists and experts in gender issues must apply their minds to this problem.



To get an idea of our greying world in the decades to come, let us look at the proportion of children (below 15 years) and elderly persons (60+) in the world as a whole. According to United Nations6 estimates and projections up to 2150, in 1995, children accounted for 31.3% of the world’s population while the elderly claimed 9.5% of the world’s population. These proportions will almost equal up by 2050 when the children’s share will be 20.5% and that of the elderly 20.7%. By the year 2100, the elderly will shoot ahead and claim 27.7% of the population, compared to 18.3% for children. And by the year 2150, the proportion of children will dwindle to 17.5% while that of the elderly will be an all time high at 30.5%. In short, in the decades to come, there will be more elderly persons than children in our world.

A greying of the population is a long term and inevitable consequence of the sharp reduction in fertility levels. Since this reduction first took place in the developed countries, these are precisely the countries which are the front-runners of the greying revolution. The United Nations includes Europe, Northern America and Oceania in Group I countries while Africa, Latin America, China, India and other Asian countries (excluding Japan) are included in Group II countries. The contrasts are striking between these two groups. In Group I, the old take over the young by the year 2000 when 18.9% are 60+ and 18.8% are below 25. In Group II countries, the old are 8% and the young 32.3% in 2000 but by the year 2075, the old will be 24.2% and the young 19.1%.

So in our countries the focus must be on the young, though the elderly merit increasing attention from planners and policy makers. Nevertheless, in the world as a whole, there is need for a change in vision. Caring for the old is not merely looking into their special needs of health care, housing and financial insecurity but a whole lot of complex issues have to be addressed. The empty nest syndrome reflected in small families, the conflict of generations, a loss of respect for the aged, the flaws of heartless institutional care of the elderly in old people’s homes are only some of the issues which defy easy solution. Can spirituality come to the rescue of the old? Can modern science prolong healthy life to 120 years?



In one of his humorous poems, Rabindranath Tagore (1893)7 suggested that the young and not the old should retire to the forest for they can appreciate what the forest offers: ‘Like profuse blossoms, cooing of the cuckoo, moonlight peering through flowery boughs; young couples have no privacy at home, people come and go, bores show no sign of leaving, neighbours peep and eavesdrop – let the old stay at home, manage property, fight lawsuits, keep track of money, and let young couples move to the forest so that they can have all the time to themselves.’





1. Paul Wallace, Agequake: Riding the Demographic Rollercoaster Shaking Business, Finance and Our World, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London, 1999.

2. Arun P. Bali (ed), Understanding Greying People of India, Inter-India Publications, New Delhi, 1999, pp. 14-15.

3. S. Irudaya Rajan, U.S. Mishra, P. Sankara Sarma, India’s Elderly: Burden or Challenge? Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1999, p. 20.

4. For detailed statistical data, see Ashish Bose and Mala Kapur Shankardass, Growing Old in India: Voices Reveal, Statistics Speak, B. R. Publishing Corporation, 2000 (in press). See also Census of India, 1991, Ageing Population of India, Registrar General, India, 1991; Census of India, 1991, Population Projections for India and States, 1996-2016, Registrar General, India, 1996; National Sample Survey, The Aged in India: A Socio-Economic Profile, 52nd Round, 1995-96, Department of Statistics, Government of India, Calcutta, 1998.

5. Ashish Bose, The Condition of the Elderly in India: A Study in Methodology and Highlights of a Pilot Survey in Delhi, 1997 (UNFPA Project Report, Mimeo, to be published).

6. United Nations, Population Division, World Population Prospects: 1998 Revision, New York, 1999. Vol I: Comprehensive Tables; Vol II: Sex and Age; United Nations, World Population Projections to 2150, New York, 1998.

7. Rabindranath Tagore ‘Shastra’ in Kshanika, 1893. Quoted by Asim Kumar Datta in Understanding Greying People of India (edited by Arun P. Bali), New Delhi, 1999.