Asia’s silver-haired generation worries experts

Marwaan Macan-Markar

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, UN 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 UN regional body, told reporters recently.

Currently, 10 per cent 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 per cent of the population.

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

Japan best conveys the challenge that lies ahead. “Nearly 42 per cent 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 per cent of the population, above 60 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.

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.

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. Some experts think the region’s governments will have to look for an “Asian model.” 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.

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. —IPS