Adding Life to Years Demographic Change in Asia and the Pacific — Global Issues


  • Opinion by Srinivas Tata (Bangkok, Thailand)
  • Inter Press Service

This year is special because we also commemorate the adoption of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo 30 years ago. In Asia and the Pacific, we convened the Seventh Asian and Pacific Population Conference in 2023, which shaped the ICPD commemoration earlier this year.

These events help us to reflect on how the concept of population policy has evolved from a narrow focus on population control to identifying and seeking opportunities in the many linkages between population and development.

The region has changed beyond recognition since 1963, when the first Asia-Pacific Population Conference was held and serious attention was first given to population policy.

The region’s population at that time was 1.9 billion, with a total fertility rate of about 6.0 births per woman and a life expectancy at birth of 51.3 years. Children aged 0-14 years constituted 40 percent of the total population, while persons aged 65 years or older constituted about 4 percent.

Today, the region has a population of about 4.8 billion people, which represents about 58 percent of the world total. The total fertility rate has fallen to 1.8 births per woman, life expectancy at birth has increased to 74.7 years, and the proportion of elderly people is 10.5 percent of the total population (and is projected to rise to 19 percent, or almost 1 billion people, by 2050).

These aggregates show variation at the subregional level. For example, in countries in East and Northeast Asia, older people already make up a much larger share of the total population than countries in other parts of the region.

This has significant implications for the workforce, economy, health care and sustainability of social protection systems. The problem has been highlighted for years by ESCAP and the UN system and is now receiving increased attention from governments, civil society and mainstream media, some of whom are making doomsday predictions that result in negative perceptions of older people and outright ageism.

Some governments have adopted pro-natalist policies with limited effect. The demographic changes that have occurred over decades cannot be reversed at the push of a button.

We must understand that population aging is the result of significant progress and achievements in health care, nutrition, education, efforts toward gender equality and women’s empowerment, and greater reproductive choices for women.

Population ageing can be seen as a natural consequence of these achievements, but it is clear that we need to better adapt to these changes that affect all aspects of society. We need a range of interconnected policies that strengthen social protection systems, promote active and healthy ageing and build strong care systems. We need to support older women, who are often the most likely to be left behind.

Furthermore, today’s young people are tomorrow’s old people. Therefore, we need to take a life-course approach to population ageing, recognising the importance of data and evidence and prioritising the rights of older people.

As the number of older people increases, for the first time in history, significant groups of different age groups will coexist in our region. This means that managing intergenerational relationships will be crucial to ensuring harmonious, cohesive, inclusive and sustainable societies in the future.

Ensuring gender equality is crucial to addressing this issue. Relieving women, including many older women, of the enormous unpaid care burden and ensuring their participation in the labor force will help maintain the productivity of the labor force, keeping them active and healthy for longer. This will add trillions of dollars to the GDP of countries in the region.

This can only be achieved if population policies are redesigned and the various aspects of development are examined, taking into account changing age and family structures.

Ultimately, it is as important to add life to years as it is to add years to life.

Srinivas Tata is director of the Social Development department of ESCAP.

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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