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Caribbean countries should take advantage of changing age structure: UN

Caribbean countries should take advantage of changing age structure: UN

Caribbean countries should take advantage of the window of opportunity offered by the rapid transition in the age structure of the region’s population, a United Nations report issued today recommends.

The region is undergoing a little-noticed but dramatic demographic shift, says the report, Changing Age Structures of Populations and their Implications for Development in the Caribbean, issued by the Subregional Headquarters of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in Port of Spain.

Increased longevity and declining sizes of younger generations are apparent in the region, where the aging process is occurring much faster and under less favourable conditions than in the more developed world.

Successful basic social and health care systems have resulted in longer life expectancy and declining child mortality, the report states. This, along with declining fertility rates, has led to one of the world’s fasted demographic transitions.

Two Caribbean countries, the United States Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, with both 17 per cent, are among the top 25 per cent of countries with the highest percentage of persons aged 60 years and over. Eight other countries are on the top half of the world’s countries with regard to ageing: Cuba (16 per cent), the Netherlands Antilles (14 per cent), Barbados (13 per cent), Trinidad and Tobago (11 per cent), Jamaica and Saint Lucia (10 per cent) and Suriname and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (10 per cent).

These demographic changes, says the report, will have a major impact on the labour force and on social security, pensions and health care systems. Universal basic social and health care can no longer be financed solely by governments. But while almost all countries recognize this, a comprehensive reform of health care, social protection and pension systems has not yet taken place.

Social protection needs to integrate women’s needs, the report says. Women outlive men, but older men seem to be generally healthier than older women. Widows do not generally receive a pension and women are often excluded from the formal labour market – two factors limiting women’s access to social protection.

While these challenges may appear insurmountable, windows of opportunity are opening, the report says. The most important is the favourable demographic situation, with the largest labour force in history and the smallest percentage of beneficiaries.

Globalization and the need to restructure Caribbean economies provide room for new avenues to diversify the economy, such as health tourism or sustainable agriculture, the report states. Partnerships with the Caribbean Diaspora may offer new business approaches and provide more investment, it notes, calling on Caribbean leaders to pursue these and other windows of opportunity to ensure a prosperous future for the region.