Over the past few decades, the world has witnessed the exponential rise of East Asian nations to become economic powerhouses. But a creeping demographic trend threatens to undercut the successes of countries like China, Japan, and South Korea. Populations in the region are ageing faster than anywhere else in the world, and governments are struggling to adjust accordingly.
The region has seen unusually quick declines in fertility and mortality rates – a trend often seen alongside rising prosperity in countries worldwide. UN figures predict that the states with the highest proportions of people over 65 by 2050 will be Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, at around 40%.
The fact that people are living longer, and aren’t having children for the sake of manual labour or poor sex education, isn’t a bad thing.
But in many East Asian countries, it’s a change that governments are not adjusting to quickly enough, leaving many of their senior citizens picking up slack they really shouldn’t have to. An ageing population means an insufficient workforce, and more budget needed to support retirees.
In Japan, for example, almost a third of the population is over 65 years of age. South Korea and China are set to reach similar levels in the near future.
But at the same time, the pensions in these countries are low – below $500 per month, on average. It’s not nearly enough to cover basic expenses, forcing many citizens to continue working well into their 70s.
One Japanese worker interviewed by the New York Times, Yoshihito Oonami, starts work at 1.30am every morning, driving hours between produce markets and the restaurants he delivers to. He’s 73, and wants to retire, but says “as long as my body lets me, I need to keep working”.
Initially, governments in the region tried to ameliorate the problem by encouraging births. In China, for example, the CCP abolished the one child policy, and has subsidised assisted reproduction.
But their efforts haven’t been particularly successful. That’s partly thanks to higher costs of living, but also reflective of gender inequality, especially in Japan and South Korea.
Cost of living pushes women to prioritise their careers from the get-go, but once they have children their societies expect them to stop working. Japan and South Korea have some of the worst gender inequality rankings among developed countries – all this culminates in many women delaying children, or avoiding them altogether.
Some analysts argue a more effective solution would be immigration reform. While East Asian nations have recently implemented some minor immigration reforms to this end, countries like Japan are notoriously opposed to immigration, and policy changes simply haven’t been significant enough to have a real impact.
Research shows that over recent history, the primary income source (apart from their own earnings) for older people in Asia has shifted from their children to social insurance programs. So, over the next decade or so these governments will have no choice but to implement policy changes to better support their seniors.
And the rest of the world should watch carefully, and learn from their experience, because this same shift will happen elsewhere later.
“You can compare the issue to how people used to view climate change: It was happening for many years, but we weren’t paying attention,” says NYT Tokyo bureau chief, Motoko Rich. “Societies need to plan for ageing, and they’re not well set up to do so. It’s not an in-your-face crisis — it’s a slow-rolling crisis.”
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