• This is the first research brief in a three-part series that looks at Asia in the ageing century. This briefing sets the demographic context. With a focus on the countries of East and South-East Asia, it summarises past and projected trends and highlights the latest research in the area, including projects conducted by CEPAR researchers.
• In total population terms Asia’s growth is expected to slow, but within 30 years it will still add one billion people to the world’s population. By then, East and South- East Asia’s population growth will have stabilised. The more significant change will be the region’s age structure. Half of the extra one billion Asians by 2040 will be over 65. The ratio of the older (65+) to the working-age population (15-64) will more than triple in many countries of East and South-East Asia by 2050. China will by then have an older population than Australia or the United States.
• Driving this demographic transition are increases in life expectancy and decreases in fertility, taking place at much lower levels of development than in the west. Life expectancy in China, for example, is a mere 3.5 years less than in the United States, even though income per capita in the US is ten times that of China.
• The demographic dividend of large cohorts of young people was until now a boon to economic growth. There is now a window of opportunity of around a decade or so before the proportions of working-age populations across East and South-East Asia start to substantially decline. This means that now is the time to set up policies, institutions, and economic structures that will be favourable in the later stages of demographic shift, before ageing becomes a headwind hindering economic growth.
• Future growth will rely more heavily on that other dynamo of East Asian economic growth: higher productivity per worker as urbanisation drives farmers to factories, or, with slowing urbanisation, as technology and education raise the efficiency of existing urban (and rural) workers. Even as China’s urbanisation growth slows, India and China are expected to add half a billion to Asia’s urban population in the next 20 years.
• In addition to these trends, the brief discusses social trends and how ageing, urbanisation, and the changing social fabric are eroding traditional support systems.
• In parts II and III of the series, the discussion covers two areas of economic activity of particular importance to the demographic transition: the means of providing retirement income on the one hand and healthcare on the other.
• The overall message is clear. The Asian century will also be the ageing century – an important concept to grasp for countries, institutions, and individuals wishing to understand their place in its future.