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Geography-Ageing Asia and India.

Asian countries are experiencing demographic transition from a young to an increasingly older population, unfolding against a context often characterised by persistent poverty, gender vulnerability, economic strain, constricted public resources and limited civil institutions to support the elderly.

Population and ageing related development are major structural issues for the 21st century. Demographic transition in Asian developing and transitional countries is quite diverse. For example, as shown in Table 1, Cambodia and Nepal are low income, slow growing economies, predominantly rural, with young and rapidly growing populations, while Bangladesh and Pakistan still have high fertility rates and low human development indicators.

In contrast, China, India and Vietnam have rapidly growing economies, moving towards lower fertility and increasing urbanisation, but with remaining pockets of severe rural poverty in regions that may resemble slow growing economies mentioned above.

Development initiatives and population policies adopted in the 1960s and 1970s have helped to reduce fertility and mortality rates to very low levels in the Asia region as a whole. Thus, many Asian countries with different levels of success in these programmes have experienced considerable changes in their population age structure.

The demographic transition from a young to an older population is typically driven by two factors. The first is rising life expectancy, mainly as a result of improvements in health and a consequent reduction in mortality rates and the second is falling fertility rates attributed to widespread use of effective contraception. The most significant ramification of fertility decline is a change in the age structure of the population with, first, a falling ratio of children; second, an older labour force; and third, a rising ratio of the elderly.

Even though birth rates have been declining in the region, the population growth momentum is such that net absolute additions to population numbers in many developing countries each year are higher than in the previous year, leading to what is called the ‘population poverty trap’ – evident across the Asian region, where despite the reduction in proportion of poor in recent years, absolute number of poor has increased.

Further, high population growth and poverty are manifested in large family size among the poor, signifying the relatively higher population growth rate of this group. For example, the poorest 10 per cent of households in Pakistan had on average 7.7 members in 1984, compared with the national average of 6.1. Similar findings emerged from 1983 income distribution data for India. It can be argued that the high population growth rate in some countries is not only a cause but also a result of poverty.

The poor tend to have more children because they typically experience higher child mortality, cheaper child-rearing costs and a greater need for income from child labour. One of the major differences in the context of Asian developing countries is the pace of population ageing, and the sheer number of older people in the developing world, which far outstrips those in the developed world.

This in itself makes ageing a development issue but, more importantly, has implications for development in Asian developing countries. Already two thirds of the world’s older population live in developing countries, with the absolute number of older people in these regions estimated to double to reach some 900 million within 25 years. From 1950 to 2005 the number of older people world-wide grew from 205 million (8 per cent of the total global population) to 672 million (10 per cent). By 2050 it is expected to reach almost two billion, representing 21 per cent of the world’s total population.

Article 11 Table1
Table 1: Demographic and selected social indicators of some Asian countries Sources: State of World Population 2008; and data from UN Population Division, United Nations Population Fund, at www.unfpa.org, and the World Bank, World Development Indicators Online, at http://devdata.worldbank.org/dataonline/.

Conceptual approach

Developing countries will contain the most ‘frail dependent elders’ in more vulnerable situations, living without support of a ‘healthy retirement’, surviving on bare minimum social insurance and patchy health services. The main focus of many developing countries lies with children and young adults, who form the core of their present populations.

The challenge is to create ‘safety nets’ that will protect present generations over the coming decades, and also provide guidance, support and care for ageing populations. The elderly have an equal ‘right to development’, which was emphasised in the regional Plan for Asia adopted in Macao in 2007, along with strategies placing responsibility on the family to support the elderly.

The elderly face resource deprivation and identity-based discrimination, which creates deep-rooted social exclusion that cannot be addressed solely through conventional income-poverty reduction programmes. Similarly, as no universal social security arrangements are available for the elderly in many Asian countries, this has become a humanitarian concern, as traditional family support systems have eroded in many communities. It is important to enhance the capacity of people as they grow older to lead productive lives in their society and economy, as a necessary condition to ensure basic standards of well being for older people. The capability approach enables an examination of people’s contribution to development and their well-being in an integrated fashion.

Emerging concerns related to ageing

Changing family patterns: From the point of view of the family’s organisation by sex and generation, there are two major types of family system in Asia: the patrilineal/patriarchal joint and stem-family systems found in East Asia (China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea) and in the northern tier of South Asia (Bangladesh, Northern India, Nepal and Pakistan), and the bilateral, more egalitarian and conjugally oriented systems found in Southeast Asia and the southern tier of South Asia (southern India and Sri Lanka).

The Indonesian culture (similar in attitude to other Asian countries) prescribes that the elderly live with and be cared for by their children or extended family. But in recent years there has been widespread concern over the decline of the family and its ability to cater for the needs of the elderly. A study by A. Hermalin (1995) titled ‘Aging in Asia: Setting the Research Foundation’ reviewed 14 Asian countries and found that the proportion of elderly living with children during the 1990s ranged between 60 and 90 per cent. In the 1990s there were further sustained reductions in these proportions.

Gender and vulnerability: The demographic and fertility transitions take on particular significance for women in a region marked by gender imbalances arising from deeply entrenched forms of discrimination. The highest proportion of women-headed households occurs where the householder is aged 60 or over, pointing to the significance of widowhood in this context. Different life expectancies for men and women, together with a tendency for women to marry partners older than themselves, mean that demographic ageing may be increasing the percentage of woman-headed households.

There is a history of conflict between women in extended households, particularly where brides have traditionally moved in with their husbands’ parents (very common in Asian countries), which can generate conflict and affect the welfare of elderly women. Older women can find themselves in a vulnerable position, as victims of abuse – when the balance of power shifts towards the younger one. In addition, the growing number of young married couples who live on their own means that care by the daughter-in-law is no longer automatic. Fertility decline also implies that older people will have fewer children to support them.

Labour markets: Demographic changes have a direct impact on labour force supply and employment. A number of elements in the current development scene may have the effect of aggravating unemployment problems. The downsizing of governments (post-economic liberalisation) tends to reduce the supply of jobs in the public sector and puts extra pressure on the private sector to generate the required employment opportunities.

The emerging global trade pattern, in which capital and/or technology-intensive goods and services constitute the fastest rising segment of exports (e.g., electronics, garments, and IT), tends to reduce employment per unit of exports. Younger rather than older generations are employed in higher proportions in these urban sectors. This has also been associated with unemployment among older people and the marginalisation of certain age groups in metropolitan areas.

An issue of growing importance is the ‘greying of populations’ meaning that a smaller working age population has to support more and more old people. This will have implications on procurement of wealth needed to support the current elderly generation (e.g., pensions, health, long-term care) and will generate pressures on public spending as there will be fewer working people (tax payers). All this will negatively affect the economic growth of Asian countries and raises concerns about their capacity to sustain the economic growth rates that underpin their recent success.

Also the economic contribution of older people in developing countries is not well understood. There is no doubt that rates of economic participation by older people are high. Greater still is their contribution made to the informal economy with older people naturally assuming roles such as childcare, cooking and other household tasks and taking on many part-time jobs in the informal sector. Younger adults are ‘released’ for employment purposes and the cumulative effect is beneficial.

Moreover, old people find themselves sharing their accommodation, pensions or limited incomes from informal employment with the younger generation for longer than they may have anticipated or desired. The study by N. Gaminiratne (2004) titled ‘Population Aging, Elderly Welfare, and Extending Retirement Cover: A Case Study of Sri Lanka’ confirmed that a large proportion of the elderly resided in multiple-person households where incomes and resources were consumed jointly by household members. Her analysis of the country’s labour force activity rates for 2000 revealed that a significant number of men remained economically active until late in their lives. Such patterns are in line with those of other countries in the region.

However, it is widely assumed, inevitably so, that as individuals age, their capacity to engage in productive work and to care for and support themselves diminishes. The question of how far the diminished capacity is the result of ‘inevitable’ biological processes of ageing, as opposed to social constraints or constructs, is subject to much greater debate.

Intergenerational support: Most of the cost of support for the elderly falls on the family, which also largely bears the costs of educating children. This burden on smaller families may prove unsustainable in the context of high unemployment or under-employment, if job creation fails to keep up with labour force increases, or where incomes are low and uncertain. A trend towards nuclear households, with the elderly living separately from their offspring, may also undermine the family support system, as may out-migration of younger workers from rural areas, leaving behind the elderly and infirm (as is increasingly occurring in China).

With rising life expectancy each succeeding cohort of the elderly would need support for a longer period than the preceding ones. Also, because of widespread birth control, one child per couple means that the future cohorts of the elderly will have fewer offspring to depend on than the present cohort (as in China). Currently the urban labour force has access to pension schemes, from which rural labour forces still remain very largely excluded (again, as in China).

Many Asian countries have had the roots of ‘intergenerational solidarity’ deeply embedded within their societies and cultures for centuries. There are several spheres to which this solidarity relates: 1) the passing on of traditional values or ‘socialisation’ of future generations; 2) pooled financial and emotional support, i.e. care for grandchildren; and 3) family care-giving and external support (welfare). Intergenerational support does not necessarily flow ‘upwards’ to the elderly, especially when economic difficulties facing younger people make funds from meagre pensions attractive to family members.

The 2002 Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) emphasised intergenerational solidarity as being one of the basic foundations of society. A regional review of the plan for Asia was held in Macao in 2007 where several recommendations related directly to older persons and development in the context of filial piety, which refers to the practice of respecting and caring for one’s parents in old age, based on a moral obligation that children owe their parents. The practice although not exclusive to Asia, is often associated with East Asian societies, especially because of the strong historical influence of Confucianism. Familial responsibility towards the old has also sometimes become enshrined in legislation, e.g. the 1992 Vietnamese Constitution.

Constrained public resources

Formal retirement income schemes do not cover the majority of those living in developing countries as they are either unavailable or not adequate for the longer life expectancy which individuals now have. Employment in the agricultural and informal sector is the norm for large numbers of the workforce. L. Willmore (2007) in his paper ‘Universal Pensions for Developing Countries’, suggests that, for developing nations, a non-contributory, basic pension can ensure that all residents of a country, regardless of earnings or occupation, have an income in old age. This type of pension would automatically cover an entire population, in a way that contribution or ‘pay as you go’ schemes cannot. China is one of many countries still assessing the feasibility of providing universal coverage for social protection for the old.

The debate surrounding social security protection in developing and transitional countries is well established and stretches back to the 1960s, when there were pushes for momentum towards universal coverage. Opponents then argued that national levels of economic and political development needed to be reached first.


Older people are particularly vulnerable to multidimensional poverty, ill health and social exclusion, especially in the context of diminishing employment opportunities and barely any social service and security provision in many of the Asian developing and transitional countries. There is a need to reform social security arrangements particularly pension reforms which are fairer and sustainable for longer life expectancy and the provision of basic minimum living standards in old age, especially as very limited state welfare systems are in place for the elderly.

Governments and donors need to play an active role in smoothing the transition of ageing populations. Although many older people are working beyond the age of 60, what should be a realistic retirement age has become a subject of debate in both developed as well as developing countries. This has a direct and significant impact on SDG.


January 29, 2021