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  • Économie du vieillissement by Ponthière Grégory
  • Simon Rabaté and Marianne Tenand
Ponthière Grégory, 2017, Économie du vieillissement [Economics of ageing], Paris, La Découverte, 127 p.

Eighty-five years is how long a girl born in 2017 in France can hope to live, whereas the average lifespan of women from her grandmother's generation was only 73.(1) Rising longevity, combined with falling fertility, has greatly increased average age in developed countries. These trends, very likely to continue in the coming decades, also affect developing countries. At the scale of the globe, the United Nations forecasts that the number of people aged 60 and over will have grown from 962 million in 2000 to over 3 billion by 2100, while the world's total population will have less than doubled.(2)

A frequent focus of public debate, demographic ageing is currently viewed from two distinct perspectives. On the one hand, we have the business world's enthusiasm for the "silver economy" and the opportunities it is said to represent; on the other, an alarmist message citing retirement system imbalances, inexorably rising healthcare expenses, the skyrocketing costs of old-age dependency, weaker economic growth in conjunction with lower proportions of people of working age, etc. Long is the list of "ills" that will presumably accompany the ageing of our societies. How can we reconcile this apocalyptic vision with the intuition that "gaining a longer life" is in itself a major economic and social advance?

That question is at the heart of Grégory Ponthière's Économie du vieillissement, published in 2017. A professor of economics at the Université Paris-Est Créteil and the Paris School of Economics, Ponthière offers a complete overview of the economic implications of ageing. He is also concerned to present the conceptual tools and empirical methods used in economics to shed light on the conditions and consequences of individual and population-wide ageing. And by highlighting that length of life is a rare and unequally distributed individual resource, he powerfully conveys the relevance of the economic approach to ageing.

In keeping with the spirit of the "Repères" series in which the book was published, it offers an instructive and precise five-chapter presentation of the various ways ageing affects the economy and public finances. The body of the text is accessible to all readers with a general social science education. For readers trained in economics, the book also contains ten boxed insets on more technical points that involve mathematical formalizations.

The first chapter situates the phenomena of increased life expectancy and increased proportions of older people in the total population in their social-historical context. It also critically examines the standard definition of demographic ageing and empirical measures of it. Is it accurate to classify a person who has reached a certain age as "old" when health at some ages has considerably improved? It would seem more relevant to calculate a "biological" age that takes into account the individual's health and functional state. The indicators selected should account [End Page 807] for the fact that the relationship between chronological age and state of health varies from one individual to the next, particularly by socioeconomic status. Some methods for measuring ageing are economic, the aim being to compare the working-age population and its productive capacity to the total population and consumption. The book also looks at statistical techniques for inferring an ageing "threshold" from the population pyramid. Paradoxically, those methods find a stable proportion of "elderly" people in France's population as a whole from 1930 to 2000. The examples presented demonstrate how choice of demographic ageing measure influences perception of the phenomenon.

The extremely detailed second chapter qualifies the "all else kept equal" analysis of the effect of demographic ageing on economic growth. In the first analysis, an older population has a greater share of economically inactive people, a situation that clearly diminishes per capita wealth. Ponthière qualifies the validity of that observation, explaining that it depends on the productivity-by-age profile of the given society and trends therein – an idea not unanimously accepted at either the theoretical level (knowledge obsolescence versus...


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