Asian governments must find strategies to deal with ageing populations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2015, 2:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2015, 2:07am

Governments in developed and developing economies alike worry about the impact of their low birth rates and fast-ageing populations, but none has yet come up with an effective counter-strategy. Some have used cash and tax incentives to encourage couples to have children, others have turned to migration and there is a general understanding that retirement ages have to be raised. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his nation among the world's most affected, has put the matter front and centre by appointing a minister for social revitalisation. Drawing up policies and getting agencies to work together will not be easy, nor is there any guarantee that workforce numbers can be increased; at the least, the profile of the problem will be lifted.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato was chosen to implement policies to boost the birth rate, get more women working and expand spending on child and elderly care as part of a new cabinet. He will be integral in helping attain the key policy goals of a gross domestic product of 600 trillion yen (HK$39 trillion), birth rate of 1.8 per woman and providing sufficient childcare to ensure that no person quits a job. Abe unveiled a slogan to drive the approach: "Realising a society where 100 million people can all play an active role". It is an ambitious target.

No Japanese would question the desire to revitalise the economy. But scepticism abounds that there can be a timely turnaround. The number of deaths are at a post-war high, births are down 2.9 per cent and pension and health care costs are spiralling. These are similar challenges for many other mature economies, among them Hong Kong.

Japanese live longer than any other people in the world, with an average of 82.73 years; Hongkongers rank third with 81.61 in the UN's latest list based on 2013 data. Spending on pensions and health care already accounts for a third of Japan's budget, so the more the birth rate shrinks and population ages, the greater the strain on tax-payers. The workforce is forecast to halve by 2060; Kato has the mammoth job of creating, enacting and overseeing policies that will overcome the problems ahead.

No government official would envy such a task, but few have the luxury of taking notes and learning. Hong Kong, like Japan and many other economies, has to come up with policies now and try to make them work. It involves a complex set of variables, among them quality of life and younger and older generations working together.