Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Population

POPULATION: Fast Growth in Asia’s Silver-Haired Generation Worries Experts

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 25 2005 (IPS) - An enduring image that has helped to define Asian societies – of ageing parents being cared for by their grown-up children – is coming under scrutiny in the wake of the region’s ballooning silver-haired generation.

Asian governments will have to usher in new policies to care for the region’s elderly, U.N. experts say, since the region is on the brink of becoming home to the largest concentration of old people.

”The intensity of ageing will increase at a faster rate in the next 50 years,” Kim Hak-Su, executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), a U.N. regional body, told reporters Monday.

Currently, 10 percent of the region’s population are men and women above 60 years, which amounts to 326 million people, states ESCAP in an annual report released here that surveys the region’s economic and social conditions. That was a ”three-fold increase in 50 years, from 96 million (people) in 1950.”

ESCAP’s forecast is even more sobering, since the Asia-Pacific region is expected to witness ”an even faster rate of increase” over the next half a century. By 2050, the number of old people in the continent would be over 1.2 billion, nearly 23 percent of the population.

That would account for nearly 63 percent of the world’s entire ageing generation, adds the report, ‘Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2005.’

And between the sexes, women are outliving their male counterparts in significant numbers, the report points out. ”The share of women in the 60 and over age group is expected to increase from five percent of the total population in 2000 to 12.4 percent by 2050.”

In contrast, the share of males in the same group is expected to rise from 4.3 to 10 percent during a similar period, according to the report.

Japan, the region’s most powerful economy, best conveys the challenge that lies ahead. ”Nearly 42 percent of Japan’s population will be over 60 years by 2050,” said Kim.

China, home to 1.3 billion people of the world’s 6.3 billion population, is also among the countries worrying ESCAP, since it is expected to have 437 million people, or nearly 30 percent of the population, above 60 years by 2050.

Two of the region’s other giants, India, with 1.08 billion people, and Indonesia, with 218 million people, are also rapidly ageing. By 2050, both countries will have one in every five people in their respective countries above the age of 60 years.

A significant reason for this demographic shift is the advances in the region’s health care services. That includes successful campaigns to combat killer diseases like malaria and cholera. The positive outcomes from population control initiatives have also shaped this demographic pattern.

”Life expectancy increased by 26 years, or 63 percent, to 67.4 years in Asia and by 13.5 years, or 22 percent, to 74.4 years in the Pacific during the last half century,” the report states.

Hence there’s little wonder why questions are being raised over the tradition that has long prevailed in the region of ageing parents being cared for by their grown up children. Can this arrangement last in these shifting times?

For the moment, it appears that the old order of the family providing the safety net still prevails. ”The good news is that the family structure is not breaking down. A majority of the old people in Asia are cared for by their children,” Thelma Kay, director of ESCAP’s emerging social issues division, told IPS.

At the same time, there is an emerging consensus among the ageing generation and the region’s governments that an answer to the rapid rise in an older population does not lie in arrangements currently prevailing in the West, namely the setting up of homes for the elderly.

”The people here are not happy with the kind of institutions for the old that you have in the West, because it doesn’t fit with our culture and lifestyle,” Usa Khiewrord, South-east Asia programmes manager for HelpAge International, a non-governmental group, told IPS.

Consequently, the region’s governments will have to look for an ”Asian model,” said Kim. Some of the likely candidates that are the subject of discussion include the way the elderly are being cared for in Malaysia, Singapore South Korea and India.

”India has begun a social assistance scheme for the elderly that is still very basic but hopeful, while Malaysia is encouraging the elderly to be cared by family members at home,” said Kay.

Other elements, too, will have to be factored in to care for the greying of Asia. They include changes in the pension and health systems, a rethinking of labour policies and confronting discrimination linked to ageing.

The ‘pay-as-you-go’ public pension system that is common across the region is ”unsustainable with the increasing number of retirees and declining share of contributors,” said Kim. ”Public debt could be under pressure.”

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