September 13, 2015

And the Winner is...

It was fascinating to see how different media outlets responded to the latest “Globe Age Watch Index.” CBS News, which may have had rankings on the mind, given that US News and World Report just released its 2016 college rankings, leaves us dangling, entitling its article, “10 Best Countries to Live in for People Over 60.” The New York Times worries about all those countries that didn’t make it into the report—98 of them, accounting for just under 10% of the world’s population, leading off with the somewhat cryptic “Older People are Invisible in Key Data.” And the Guardian collapses the entire 29-page report to one number, telling us “It’s official—Switzerland is the Best Place to Grow Old.” So what exactly does the report say and what is there to say about it?

The rankings are based on four measures that the report’s authors say represent core issues of concern to older people. These are income security (which is a function of pension coverage, poverty rate in old age, and standard of living); health status (which is based on life expectancy at age 60, healthy life expectancy at age 60, and psychological well being); capability (which is defined in terms of employment level and educational status of older people, meant to serve as proxies for engagement and human capital); and enabling environment (which is assessed based on access to public transportation, physical safety, and social connections).

What the report finds is that among the 96 countries for which sufficient data was available, twenty are in the top quintile. The US is number 9, with Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Iceland, and Japan ahead of us, though not by much. The composite ranking is much less interesting than the component sub-scores. If you look beyond the overall ranking, you find that the US is 29 in income security (which would eject it from the top quintile if that were the sole indicator); it is 25 in health status (diito), and 17 on enabling community. In fact, the only area where the US performed very well was capability—which reflects the fact that it measures employment in people aged 55-64, and Americans seldom retire early unless they’re compelled to. So the picture for the US isn’t exactly rosy. What would be more interesting would be to look at similar indices for people who are over 70 (or at least for people over 65).

But the really important message isn’t how the US looks, however sobering that might be. The crucial message is that the rest of the world isn’t doing so well and the gap between the elderly in rich countries and those in poor countries is growing. Also disturbing although hardly surprising is how poorly countries are doing that are in conflict zones, countries including Afghanistan, the West Bank and Gaza, and Iraq. China, which is facing an imminent explosion in the size of its older population (and a dwindling supply of younger people to take care of them), is smack in the middle of the distribution, at 52. Greece, which is economically if not physically under siege, is way down at 79. Also in the fourth quintile, along with Greece, are Ukraine (73) and Russia (65). 

Yes, there is quite a bit of missing data here (though we can guess that the elderly aren’t doing well in Syria and Yemen and many of the other places that didn’t provide information) and yes, we can quibble with the specific measures that were used, although the basic categories seem reasonable. And in general, I’m not a fan of rankings (see for example, my commentary about Nursing Home Compare). But if used to identify which areas are in particular need of attention, I think the report is useful. For the US, that means health status and income.

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