Is Asia Ready to Face a ‘Grey Tsunami?’

Population aging presents unique challenges in low-income countries with few resources like Afghanistan.
Population aging presents unique challenges in low-income countries with few resources like Afghanistan.

By Sri Wening Handayani

On World Population Day, it's time to reflect on how we choose to address the challenges and maximize the opportunities of a growing older population, which will determine the future of developing Asia.

What is the state of the world in terms of age structure? With 1 in 9 persons already aged 60 years or over, and that figure is projected to increase to 1 in 5 by 2050, the “grey tsunami” is coming slowly but surely.

In Asia, where the elderly population is projected to reach 922.7 million by the middle of this century, countries such as India and Indonesia will still reap the population dividend until 2030, but the rate of aging of some countries is as fast as in the West. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that “population aging can no longer be ignored”.

Wait a second – the picture is not always as bleak as baby boomers think that “we defeat many causes of illness, age longer, and will never grow old.” Increasing longevity is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Indeed, population aging is cause for celebration. Look at the rapid increase of life expectation even among low-income countries – 10-15 years over the last 50 years. The opportunities that this presents are as endless as the contributions that a socially and economically active, secure and healthy aging population can bring to society. The opportunities come with challenges, though. Population aging presents social, economic and cultural challenges to individuals, families, and society.

It is how we choose to address the challenges and maximize the opportunities of a growing older population that will determine the future of developing Asia. This reminds me of Atul Gawande’s words in his book Being Mortal, where he wrote that “the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life – all the way to the end.” What is needed in one’s declining years is a life with meaning, a life as rich and full as possible under the circumstances. And I would like to add: a life with dignity to the end.

The question is, are we ready to be a compassionate society? Several well-known studies in Asia show there is a thread of concern about the multiple discriminations experienced by the elderly. It is unacceptable that millions of elderly continue to live in poverty, lacking income security, health care, access to basic services, support in emergencies, and the full enjoyment of their human rights.

Asia’s expected population “grey tsunami” should not be an excuse not to act, but rather seen as a call to action. Several countries have made progress in improving social protection and care for elderly. For example, in 2009, the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) initiated a new pension system for its rural population. The PRC is also developing comprehensive policy measures to improve the care of elderly people, including promotion of home-based and community-based services. Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam have provided universal or means-tested social pensions. More than 10 countries in developing Asia have passed national laws on the elderly and established special bodies on aging within ministries.

Living longer requires affirmative measures to ensure that older age is experienced as a time of opportunity, rather than a time of life to be feared. Among the affirmative measures required challenging age discrimination, and ensuring access to income security as well as affordable and quality health care.

More importantly, the elderly must be included as contributors and participants in all types of development processes that affect their wellbeing. A 2012 UNFPA report mentioned that “all people, now and in the future, in all countries—rich or poor—must be able to age with dignity and security, enjoying the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedom to lead fulfilled and active lives”.

Let’s act now, and we will be ready to face the “grey tsunami”.