Ageing society

How ageing populations in the Asia-Pacific can become an economic boom

Shamshad Akhtar says regional governments must increase the rights and employment opportunities for the growing number of elderly, to stimulate growth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 10:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 5:25pm

As the share of older people across the Asia-Pacific region increases, we must seek to turn this demographic trend into an opportunity. The number of elderly in the region is expected to rise from 535 million in 2015 to about 1.3 billion by 2050, and we need to consider the effects of this on our economies, societies and livelihoods.

Ignoring this challenge would have profound consequences. We cannot leave care of the elderly to families or ignore the need for health care and income security schemes. Economic growth is not assured; the ratio of working-age people to older people is falling sharply, and in most Asia-Pacific countries, less than a third of the working-age population contributes to a pension scheme.

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Traditional systems rely on the family to support ageing relatives, but smaller families mean fewer working-age members to shoulder this responsibility. Declining support ratios also have implications for existing social security schemes, particularly pension systems under which contributions paid by current workers support retirees’ pensions.

Between differences in the average age at marriage and longer life expectancies, women outlive their spouses by four to 10 years. Yet women are less likely than men to have adequate pension benefits or control assets like land in their old age. We need special social protection measures to redress the feminisation of poverty.

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To economically benefit from ageing populations, we must ensure that older people who want to work have the right and are provided with re-employment. The statutory retirement age across the Asia-Pacific is low, considering increasing life expectancies. Eliminating age barriers in the formal labour market would help ease the fiscal pressure on pension schemes and health care systems. Allowing older people to work as long as they are able and willing would sustain their self-sufficiency and reduce social alienation. Financially secure, healthy older people can use their decades of experience, wisdom and wealth to stimulate growth.

In 2002, the UN brought countries together in Madrid to agree to treat older people as actors of development, ensure their health and well-being, and create enabling environments for them. In our region, delegates from 29 governments assembled in Bangkok recently to add new resolve to existing commitments.

We support countries seeking to turn their commitments into action, securing inclusive and sustainable economies and societies for all ages in the region. We grow wiser together.

Dr Shamshad Akhtar is undersecretary general of the United Nations and executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific