Tough choices as nations go grey
The Straits Times
Publication Date : 13-10-2012
The United Nations has tried, not too persuasively, to argue that rapid global ageing is a cause for celebration notwithstanding the challenges to be met. Its Population Fund (UNFPA) prefers to see a silver lining of rising life expectancy in the dark demographic cloud - one in nine people in the world is 60 or older, a ratio to rise to one in five by 2050. Developing world populations are growing old more quickly than those elsewhere.
Singapore, certainly, must take the problem more seriously than all of its neighbours in South-East Asia. With 15.5 per cent of its population above 60 this year, a proportion projected to rise to 37.8 per cent by 2050, it is the most acute case. Only Thailand comes close, behind by about 2 per cent currently. Those above 60 form a bigger population segment in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, with all growing old at a comparable speed. Other developed countries - the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and almost all European nations - have an even bigger proportion of seniors than Singapore does.
This offers Singapore a chance to learn from the experiences of such developed nations. UNFPA has summarised necessary, if obvious, lessons: Prepare government, civil society, private sector, communities and families for the inevitability of population ageing by enhancing understanding, strengthening capacity, and implementing essential social, economic and political reforms. In practice, Singapore copes in its own way. It is trying to offset the declining ratio of workers to retirees with a holistic combination of policy options - use foreign labour, enhance fertility, raise productivity, encourage women and seniors to continue working, and so on.
UNFPA is realistic in assessing that some of these steps "are not likely to compensate for population ageing". The disappointing response to Baby Bonus incentives suggests that "the scope for increasing fertility is also only limited", as it noted. Immigration measures that succeed in attracting foreign talent have led to unhappiness over overcrowding, higher prices, and social integration issues.
Yet, unlike Japan, which has the world's oldest population, Singapore has not refrained from tapping immigrants to make up the labour shortfall. Japan seems unlikely to change mindsets to embrace diversity that immigration brings, and abandon exclusionary notions of ethnic homogeneity - at least not by 2050, when it will have lost a third of its 127 million population.
Tough choices await Japan, Singapore and other countries. If a silver glimmer is to appear as the world swiftly ages, a change in public attitudes will be critical.