Adding Life to Years – Demographic Change in Asia and the Pacific

Grandparents looking after a toddler at a park in Viet Nam. Credit: Pexels/Loifotos
  • Opinion by Srinivas Tata (bangkok, thailand)
  • Inter Press Service

According to the World Population Prospects 2024: Summary of Results published July 10, it is expected that the world’s population will peak in the mid-2080s, growing over the next sixty years from 8.2 billion people in 2024 to around 10.3 billion in the mid-2080s, and then will return to around 10.2 billion by the end of the century. The size of the world’s population in 2100 is now expected to be six per cent lower—or 700 million fewer—than anticipated a decade ago. Meanwhile, the UN is commemorating World Population Day on July 11.

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

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

The region has changed beyond recognition from the situation in 1963 when the first Asian and Pacific Population Conference was convened, and population policies were first given serious attention.

The population of the region 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 accounted for 40 per cent of the total population, whereas persons 65 years or older accounted for about 4 per cent.

Today, the region has a population of about 4.8 billion people which represents about 58 per cent of the world’s total. The total fertility rate has plunged to 1.8 births per woman, life expectancy at birth has increased to 74.7 years, and the proportion of older persons stands at 10.5 per cent of the total population (and it is projected to go up to 19 per cent or almost 1 billion people by 2050).

These aggregates mark variation at the subregional levels, with older persons in countries in East and North-East Asia, for example, already accounting for a much greater share of the total population compared to countries in other parts of the region.

This has significant implications for the labour force, economy, health care and sustainability of social protection systems. The issue has been highlighted by ESCAP and the UN system for years, and it is now receiving heightened attention from Governments, civil society and mainstream media, some of whom are making doomsday predictions resulting in negative perceptions of older persons and outright ageism.

Some governments have initiated pro-natalist policies with limited effect. The demographic changes that have happened over decades cannot be reversed by the flick of a switch.

We need to understand that population ageing is the result of significant progress and achievements in health care, nutrition, education, strives toward gender equality and empowerment of women and greater reproductive choices for women.

Population ageing can be seen as a natural outcome of these achievements, but clearly, we need to adapt better to these changes that affect all aspects of society. We need a range of interconnected policies which ensure stronger 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.

Also, the younger people of today are older persons of tomorrow, and thus we must adopt a life course approach to population ageing that recognizes the importance of data and evidence and accords priority to the rights of older persons.

As proportions of older persons rise, significant cohorts of populations in different age groups will co-exist in our region for the first time in history. This means that managing inter-generational relations will be critical to ensuring harmonious, cohesive, inclusive and sustainable societies in the future.

Ensuring gender equality is critical to addressing this issue. Relieving women, including many older women, of the huge unpaid care burden and ensuring their participation in the labour force will contribute to maintaining labour force productivity keeping them active and healthy for longer periods. This will add trillions of USD to the GDP of countries in the region.

This can only be achieved if population policies are reimagined to explore their multiple links to the different dimensions of development, taking into account the changing age and family structures.

In the end, it is as important to add life to years as it is to add years to life.

Srinivas Tata is Director of ESCAP’s Social Development Division.

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service