During the 1990s, Iran secured one of – if not the – fastest fertility declines of any country in history. In the mid-1980s, the total fertility rate in Iran was more than 5.6. BY 2000 this had fallen to below replacement rate (around 2.0) This was achieved through the implementation of a highly progressive family planning policy in tandem with increased employment and educational opportunities for women. Today, fertility in Iran is around 1.9.
In recent years, however, there has been a marked shift in the rhetoric in Iran concerning the birth rate. While reduction of the birth rate was once seen as critical to checking rapid population growth, now ‘low’ fertility is seen to be an economic and political danger. As well as bluntly pronatalist tools (such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad giving free gold coins to couples having more children), the country’s family planning regime has been curbed significantly.
On April 15th, The Guardian (UK) ran a story stating that the Iranian Parliament was in the process of seeking a ban on vasectomies and a tightening access to abortion. This is a direct policy transition from a slashing of subsidies for vasectomies and other family planning instruments.
The stated reasons behind this are myriad and intertwined. Along with ideological notions that the progressive family planning system was ‘an imitation of western lifestyle’ there is clearly a political-nationalist sentiment behind a stated aim to ‘double the total population’ to ‘at least 150 million. There is also a misguided view that the family planning regime is to ‘blame’ for the currently ‘low’ birth rate in Iran – the more likely reason being the recent economic and political instability under the Ahmadinejad regime causing a postponement of marriage and (limiting) childbearing.
However, one recurring theme in the pro-natalist discourse in Iran is the need to tackle to country’s ‘ageing society.’ Like all countries undergoing fertility transition, Iran is certainly ageing. Yet, the extent to which it is ageing has been exaggerated by bad demography.
Ageing is traditionally measured using the ‘old age dependency ratio’ [OADR]. This is simply the number of people deemed ‘old’ – usually aged over 65 – divided by the population on whom they are judged to be ‘dependent’ – or those of working age, generally 15/18/20 to 64, multiplied by 100. In the mid-1980s, the OADR for Iran was just 7.1 – namely that there were 7.1 ‘old’ people for every 100 people aged 20-64. Today this figure is 8.4. By 2030 this is projected to double to 16.1; by mid-century it will be around 40 and by 2100 almost 70 (UNPD 2012). Using this measurement, there is no doubt that the country is ageing rapidly – as concluded in this article for example – and, therefore, provides support for the policies being enacted in Iran.
But how helpful is the OADR? As Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov have argued, the OADR does not take into account increasing life expectancy or improved health; and assumes that all people aged over 65 do not work and all those of working age do. As Basten has further argued for much of Asia, the OADR is especially redundant in settings where very little ‘happens’ at age 65 in terms of limited coverage of benefits for the elderly or an irrelevant concept of ‘retirement’.
Sanderson and Scherbov have proposed a number of different ways to ‘remeasure’ ageing in order to take these criticisms of the OADR into account. These are based upon the notion of ‘prospective ageing’ – shifting the focus from a static view of number of years lived over to number of years of expected life remaining. They suggest reclassifying the numerator as the population with a remaining life expectancy of 15 years (as this would be the most ‘dependent’ population in terms of ill health and care needs). If we look at ageing prospectively in Iran we get a very different perspective. Remaining life expectancy [RLE] at age 65 today is, indeed, around 15 years so the ‘prospective old age dependency ratio’ [POADR] and OADR would be similar. However, the age at which RLE=15 years increases to 70 by 2030; 75 by 2070 and almost 80 by century’s end. If we recalculate the POADR based upon these shifting boundaries of ‘old age’ we see the following:
2010: OADR = 8.4; POADR: 8.4
2030: OADR = 16.1; POADR: 10.7
2050: OADR = 38.1; POADR: 20.4
2070: OADR = 58.7; POADR: 27.6
2100: OADR = 62.8; POADR: 23.9
Based upon a prospective ageing approach, the relative size of the ‘dependent population’ increases by a factor of 3.5 over the next 60 years rather than over 7 using the traditional OADR. In other words, ageing measured in the classical way is twice as serious.
If we really want to understand the nature of a future ‘ageing crisis’, especially in a society without the extremely high social welfare expenditure of Western Europe, we need to think about ‘old age’ and ‘dependency’ completely differently. Indeed, it is somehow ironic that the ageing ‘crisis’ in Iran is based upon a measurement designed, ultimately, for understanding old age and dependency in historical Western Societies. Demographers need to be much more careful in asserting ‘crises’ in ageing; and be much more proactive in demonstrating to policymakers that we can measure and forecast ageing in a more dynamic, realistic and nuanced way. If we continue to present ageing based upon outmoded constructions we run the risk of other countries who have achieved significant fertility decline basing policy decisions upon a deeply flawed – and highly exaggerated – understanding of ageing in the future.