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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 November, 2004, 09:10 GMT
Northern Ireland 'grows old fast'
Older people may have to work longer
Older people may have to work longer
There are more young people in Northern Ireland than any other part of the UK, but the population is ageing fast.

Government statisticians have predicted that by about 2017, there will be more pensioners than children causing major changes to the structure of the economy.

The good news is that fewer people died in Northern Ireland last year than ever before.

However, the birth rate is also close to an all-time low.

Fertility rate

In the past 25 years the average number of children a woman will have has reduced by a whole child to 1.81.

The fertility rate in Northern Ireland remains higher than the rest of the UK but predictions for the next decade show a 3% decline in the number of births.

Children under 16-years-old will reduce in number by 10% in the next 10 years but women over 60 and men over 65 will increase by about a fifth.

By 2017, the Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency (NIRSA) predicts that the number of children will have reduced to below 350,000 and the number of pensioners will have gone above that figure.

Dr David Marshall from NISRA said: "We project that some time in the next 10 to 15 years there will be more pensioners than children.

The implication is that if you have more older people this will be a drain on resources
Dr Dermot O'Reilly

"The number of pensioners is going up fairly dramatically and the number of children is falling.

"The projection is based on assuming that fertility rates stay as they currently are and mortality rates continue to fall.

"The ageing of the population will continue, and from a low base Northern Ireland will start to catch up with the rest of the UK. The gap will be narrowed."

Dr Dermot O'Reilly, senior lecturer in the department of epidemiology and public health at Queen's University, said that the increase in over 75s was seen by some people as the "failure of success" in public health.

He said: "The implication is that if you have more older people this will be a drain on resources.

"It will be a drain particularly on the health and caring professions and social services.

New treatments

"However, some people have countered by saying that older folk of today and the future are not the same as older folk of the past.

"People are getting healthier as they get older. The overall impression is that people will not be as dependent on health and social services in the future as they are now."

However, Dr O'Reilly said that the overall impact on health services still remains to be seen.

Older people are getting access to procedures they would not have had previously and new treatments are being introduced all time, pushing up costs.

Dr O'Reilly added: "On the other side of the equation, fewer children will mean fewer schools, fewer teachers, perhaps fewer paediatricians.

"On the economic point of view, you will have a more dependent society.

Fewer babies are being born than 25 years ago

"Less people producing and more dependence and that will certainly put economic pressures on the country."

He said this could see the pensionable age rising.

"We should look at older people as an opportunity rather than a threat," Dr O'Reilly said.

"There is a potential to improve their health more and have them contribute actively to society rather than as a burden and a millstone round society's neck."

This message was echoed by Pam Tilson of Age Concern who said the fact that the population is living longer is "something to be celebrated".

'Active ageing'

She said: "We should not see it as a problem. We should be aiming to create a society for all ages, where people realise that an ageing population has implications for employment, for services, for consumers and for the economy."

She said the implications for the health service of an ageing population could be avoided by making sure that people stay healthier for longer.

She wants to see "a comprehensive strategy for active ageing".

"It means that you are looking at everything from health promotion and health provision to lifelong learning, to income and pensions benefits, to allowing people to be as economically and physically active for as long as they can be.

"If you have a healthy population of people who keep fit and healthy in their old age then it will not have too much of an impact on the NHS."

NI births at lowest level
07 Aug 03 |  Northern Ireland
Analysis: NI census figures
30 Sep 02 |  Northern Ireland
Pensions poverty 'will hit NI'
12 Oct 04 |  Business
NI fertility rate at lowest level
17 Jun 02 |  Northern Ireland

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