Is Asia-Pacific ready to age gracefully?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Bjorn Andersson, Asia-Pacific Regional Director, United Nations Population Fund

  • The global population is ageing, with Asia-Pacific likely to see the most rapid increase in older citizens between now and 2050.
  • On 1 October 2021, International Day of Older Persons, we must be aware of the impact of an ageing population on the world, as well as the need to ensure people can age with dignity.
  • This means actively adopting national policies and systems that enhance the livelihoods of older people through investments made throughout their lifecycles.
  • This lifecycle approach should also be grounded in an awareness of gender equality and human rights.

Imagine it is the year 2050. In Asia-Pacific, one in four people will be over the age of 60 – three times the number of older persons living in the region in 2010. With Asia-Pacific likely to have close to 1.3 billion senior citizens in less than 30 years, are countries in the region prepared to fully address the needs of older persons so that they can age with dignity?

Pie chart showing the top 10 countries with the highest number of citizens aged 65 years old or above (thousands).
Top 10 countries with the highest number of people aged 65+, 2020 (thousands) Image: ESCAP calculations based on: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Population Prospects 2019, Online Edition

Let’s rewind. In present-day Southeast Asia, 72 year-old Ping sells three kilos of sticky rice each day in her remote village, earning barely enough for a basic living. She’s been doing this for more than 10 years, ever since her husband passed away. Her son died two months ago and her two daughters have married and moved to another province. Ping gets some consolation from the health insurance she is entitled to, as maintaining good health during her old age is her main concern.

In the past, Ping and other women in numerous countries across Asia-Pacific may have been supported by their families and communities. Yet, times are changing. Migration and urbanisation have shifted traditional support systems for the elderly and more governments are grappling with increasing healthcare costs and a shrinking workforce. Although less than a third of older people in the region currently receive a pension of some sort, pension payments are growing as the older population multiplies, straining government budgets further.

More than ever, there is an urgent need for policy reform to address population ageing. This must be driven by a shift in mindset to convert these challenges into a demographic opportunity.

We must rethink population ageing, celebrating it as the triumph of development that it truly is. —Björn Andersson, UNFPA

Population ageing is not a threat, but an opportunity

We must rethink population ageing, celebrating it as the triumph of development that it truly is. More people are living longer due to successive advancements in health, nutrition, economic and social well-being. Couples are also having fewer babies. This is due to a variety of reasons, from the challenge of striking a work-life balance to not being able to afford more children. Low fertility and longer life-expectancy are not the issue, however. The real problem is not being ready to face this rapidly changing demographic shift.

This is why governments must act now. Policy makers must work together with academia and civil society to incorporate rights-based ageing policies and systems into national development plans. This needs to include national policies and systems that enhance the livelihoods of older people through investments made throughout their lifecycles.

While some countries in Asia-Pacific have already taken steps to do this, implementation must be strengthened, particularly within the contexts of COVID-19 and of escalating humanitarian crises that increase the vulnerabilities of older persons.

Bar chart showing age and sex distribution for total population, Asia-Pacific - 1990, 2020 & 2050.
Age and sex distribution of the total population for the region and by subregion, 1990, 2020, 2050 Image: ESCAP calculations based on: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Population Prospects 2019, Online Edition

A lifecycle approach with gender equality at the core

Further, because more than half of the older population in Asia-Pacific is female, the lifecycle approach to population ageing must be grounded in an awareness of gender equality and human rights.

Life-long gender discrimination leaves women even more disadvantaged in an ageing society. Older women are often more financially dependent than older men due to generally lower education levels and unpaid work, having often carried the burden of being the family caregiver.

Six line graphs showing hours spent working per week by age, sex and type of work, in Bangladesh, India, Mongolia, Thailand, Turkey, Viet Nam.
Average time (hours) spent per week, by type of work, age and sex Image: ESCAP; Older Women and Men as Providers and Recipients of Unpaid Care Work in the Asia-Pacific Region (2020). Online Edition

Investing in each stage of life, starting from before a girl is born, determines the path of her life course. When a woman is able to safely deliver a baby, this in turn improves the long-term health of both mother and child. When a girl has access to quality education, including comprehensive sex education, it helps her make informed decisions about life-changing matters as she transitions from childhood to adolescence and on to adulthood.

When a woman has an equal opportunity to contribute to the workforce and has bodily autonomy, she has the power to shape her own future. The decisions she makes, and is allowed to make, at every stage of her life, paves the way to a healthier and more financially-secure silver age.

When a woman has an equal opportunity to contribute to the workforce and has bodily autonomy, she has the power to shape her own future. —Björn Andersson, UNFPA

There is little time to lose

We need to take action now. The megatrend of rapid demographic shifts is altering Asia-Pacific and our entire world.

This is why the years 2020-2030 have been declared the UN Decade for Healthy Ageing, complementing the Madrid International Plan of Action for Ageing (MIPAA). Its 20th anniversary next year will bring together governments in Asia-Pacific, and globally, to review progress made and to better plan for the challenges ahead. And as we celebrate International Day of Older Persons today, we need to be aware of the impact of the ageing population and ensure people can age with dignity and with full access to their rights. Future of Work

What is the World Economic Forum doing about including older people in the workforce?

There is a global myth that productivity declines as workers age. In fact, including older workers is an untapped source for growth.

The world has entered a new phase of demographic development where people are living longer and healthier lives. As government pension schemes are generally ill-equipped to manage this change, insurers and other private-sector stakeholders have an opportunity to step in.

The World Economic Forum, along with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and AARP, have created a learning collaborative with over 50 global employers including AIG, Allianz, Aegon, Home Instead, Invesco and Mercer. These companies represent over two million employees and $1 trillion in annual revenue.

Learn more in our impact story.

While there is no single comprehensive policy that can address population ageing, we must invest in forward-thinking, rights-based and gender-sensitive policies that focus on the needs of people at every age of their life. In so doing, countries in the Asia-Pacific region can aspire to, and achieve, a better future for all where no one is left behind.

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