Middle East

Alarm bells ring louder as Iran teeters on edge of aging crisis

Life expectancy in Iran has risen but fertility rates have plummeted

Syed Zafar Mehdi  | 09.10.2023 - Update : 11.10.2023
Alarm bells ring louder as Iran teeters on edge of aging crisis

- Life expectancy in Iran has risen but fertility rates have plummeted

- More than 32% of population, or 35 million, will be categorized as elderly by 2051-52

- Experts attribute burgeoning crisis to social and economic reasons


In a stark new warning about Iran’s aging population, a senior Health Ministry official said last week that around 30 million people in the country would join the “elderly” league in less than 30 years.

Saber Jabari, who heads the ministry’s youth department, told a news conference in Tehran that currently 10 million of the country’s 89 million people are older than 60 years.

“Our country is rapidly moving toward the aging of the population,” he said, attributing the trend to an increase in life expectancy and falling fertility rates.

Life expectancy has jumped from 57 years to 76 years for men, and 78 years for women, since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Jabari said.

With a hint of worry, he added that there has been a worrying decrease in fertility rates that has put the country on the edge of the aging crisis.

Among the reasons, Jabari said, are late marriages and childless couples, noting that 4 million youths between 31 and 39 are currently unmarried.

His remarks came two months after a report by the parliament’s research center said more than 30% of the population will be “elderly” by 2040.

Titled “Aging in Iran: Prospects and Challenges,” the exhaustive report said the ratio of elderly to the total population, which stood at 10% in 2019-20, will surge to 20% by 2042 and 32.1%, or 35 million, by 2051-52.

Families becoming smaller

The alarm bells have been sounded repeatedly in recent years, but the negative trend continues.

Seyed Mohammad Seyed-Mirzaei, a Tehran-based professor of population studies, described the young population as the “main driving force behind any nation’s growth.”

He warned that if the decline in fertility rates continues, the “demographic window of opportunity” for the country will be closed in coming decades, and elderly dependents will outnumber prime-age workers who can produce wealth.

“Iranian families are constantly getting smaller and smaller and this is worrying. In the past, many families had five to six children. But now, most of the families have either two or even one child. Many people don’t even marry, and even if they marry, they don’t want any kids,” he told Anadolu.

“If Iran’s demographic window of opportunity is closed, it will be closed forever. We have to do something about this.”

Seyed-Mirzaei attributed the issue of the aging population to two main social and economic reasons.

“Firstly, we have to note that the fall in the population’s growth rate is a global trend. In Iran, like the rest of the world, life is getting more and more complicated. Many parents now are afraid that more children mean more responsibilities and more trouble,” he said.

“Secondly, it has the underlying economic reason. Parents need to see bright economic prospects ahead and be assured that they can finance more kids. People in Iran today are struggling to make ends meet amid high inflation and it further discourages people from having more children.”

‘Long-term plans needed’

Iranian officials have often issued warnings about the aging population, with almost all attributing it to an increase in life expectancy and a decrease in fertility rates over the years.

According to historian Mehdi Mohammadi, the country witnessed a “baby boom” during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, as authorities called for boosting the country’s population.

In the mid-1980s, the fertility rate reached 6.5 children per woman, the highest ever seen in the country.

In the next two decades, he added, the birth rate slowly came down under reformist governments who championed family planning programs, which finally came to an end in the mid-2000s.

Since the mid-2000s, successive governments have offered attractive incentives to families that choose to have more than three to four children, including bank loans, plots of land and cars.

The steady decline in the fertility rate has been a cause of concern, plummeting from 6.5 children per woman in the 1980s to 1.5 now, with new births continuously shrinking on an annual basis.

The population growth rate has also declined from 3.9% in 1986 to less than 1% in 2021.

“Aging population is one of the biggest challenges facing the country today and calls for serious contemplation, both on the part of relevant authorities and people,” Daniyal Mehmoodi, a Tehran-based social scientist and researcher, told Anadolu.

“Long-term plans are needed to address it.”

He said the UN’s World Social Report 2023 referred to the “global trend of population aging,” and noted that people older than 65 would rise to 1.6 billion by 2050.

“But Iran’s case is particularly peculiar, perhaps even more than Japan, Italy and Germany, as it is already battling with problems on multiple fronts, including sanctions,” said Mehmoodi.

Demographic ‘black hole’

In December 2021, Iran’s former Deputy Health Minister Kamal Heydari warned about the collapse of social and economic systems if the negative demographic changes continue in the same way.

“Seven years later, if the trend continues, we will fall into the demographic black hole, and it takes at least 150 years to make up for that,” he said at the time, sounding the proverbial alarm bell.

Some officials have in the past also warned of the population growth touching a zero figure.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also repeatedly referred to the issue of the aging population in speeches, encouraging families to have more children.

In May 2014, he proposed a 14-point plan to address the issue, which was sent to the parliament, judiciary and executive, that called for boosting fertility rates, eliminating barriers to marriage, reforming the education system, promoting an Islamic lifestyle and preventing migration.

In August 2019, he told authorities that increasing the number of children should become a “cultural norm,” urging the youth to marry and start families at a young age.

He again warned about the dangers of a declining birth rate last May, noting that boosting the rate and supporting families should be “one of the important duties” of the government.

“The biggest barrier, I believe, is the economic situation that is discouraging people from having bigger families, as everything from jobs to housing has become a big struggle,” Mehmoodi said.​​​​​​​

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