How To Improve the Well-Being of Older People in Asia and the Pacific

Policies are needed to keep older persons in Asia and the Pacific healthy and well for longer years. Photo: Marcus Aurelius.
Policies are needed to keep older persons in Asia and the Pacific healthy and well for longer years. Photo: Marcus Aurelius.

By Aiko Kikkawa, Donghyun Park

The region’s rapidly aging population faces challenges related to lower incomes and accelerating demographic changes. Addressing health, economic security, and social engagement is crucial to improve the well-being of older persons.

Asia and the Pacific is aging rapidly. Older people, those aged 60 and above, accounted for 13.5% of the region’s population in 2022. That figure is expected to nearly double to 25.2% by 2050. Such unprecedented population aging is happening at lower incomes than when advanced economies faced such demographic change. The sheer speed and scale of aging, coupled with the heightened vulnerability of older persons, underscores the urgent need for the region to promote the well-being of its aging population.

Four interconnected dimensions are important for old-age well-being, namely health, productive work, economic security, and social engagement. Health is central since it can keep older people productive, economically secure, and socially engaged. The four dimensions are closely linked. Some are inherently mutually reinforcing such as health and social engagement while others can create unintended consequences such as the work disincentives of generous pension benefits. 

Economic and social progress in the region has sharply reduced poverty, tangibly improved the quality of life, and significantly extended longevity. Yet the well-being of current and future cohorts of older people is at risk from multiple threats. For instance, 57% had at least one diagnosed noncommunicable disease, 31% had elevated depressive symptoms, 40% had no pension, either contributory or social, and 16% felt lonely most of the time. As such, older people in Asia and the Pacific face vulnerabilities across all four key dimensions of old-age well-being. Furthermore, a yawning inequality separates older persons in health, productive work, economic security, and social engagement. 

More specifically, well-being in old age is impeded by pervasive informal employment and stark gender inequality. Very few informal workers in the region enjoy protection from disabling illness or injury. Informal workers enjoy little or no paid leave, disability allowance, or pension or other option to prepare financially for old age. Many have little choice but to work as long as their health permits. 

Women can expect to live longer than men but are more prone to disease and thus insecurity in old age. Gender inequality has narrowed in some areas but persists institutionally, such as in pension systems that tie benefits to contribution periods without allowing for the greater family demands that cultural norms place on women.  Time spent on housework and family care constrains women’s economic opportunities and leaves them vulnerable in old age.

A lifelong, life-cycle, population-wide approach is needed to meet the aging challenge.

Old-age well-being is thus a work in progress in the region. Therefore, a key policy agenda across the region is to ensure the well-being of older people by helping them to age well. Well-being in old age can be enhanced by individuals’ lifetime investment in their own health, education, skills, financial preparedness for retirement, and family and social ties. Policies for aging well should therefore actively promote healthy lifestyles, lifelong learning to update skills and learn new ones, and long-term financial planning for retirement. 

Promoting well-being in old age has fiscal costs, but countermeasures can help contain them. In particular, public and private investment in human capital—beginning in the cradle with preventative and curative health care, followed by lifelong education—can generate over time bigger silver dividends as healthy and educated older people become more productive. The silver dividend or additional productivity that could be gained from untapped work capacity among older persons is substantial and could equal up to 1.5% of gross domestic product for some economies in the region. 

 Governments must do more to empower people to plan and prepare for old age. They can disseminate information and raise awareness to help workers of all ages set realistic expectations about future retirement needs, taking into account that future policies may change the retirement age and pension terms. They can also support initiatives that help firms and workers themselves develop career plans and retirement paths in anticipation of longer working lives. 

A lifelong, life-cycle, population-wide approach is needed to meet the aging challenge. Evidence lends strong support to a three-pronged approach to aging well: A lifelong approach encourages continuous investment in human capital throughout people’s lives. A life-cycle approach provides adequate intervention in accordance with age-specific needs. And population-wide outreach targets people of all ages. 

 Comprehensive aging policies can ensure a healthy and productive older population with autonomy and ability to offer a large silver dividend, the economic and social contributions made by older people. 

Future generations of older people in Asia and the Pacific will live healthier and longer lives and be more educated. To leverage their full potential to the benefit of their own well-being and the broader society, it is time for governments to take action to improve all four dimensions of well-being in old age. 

If they do, people of all ages can aspire to live well and age well.

This blog is based on research undertaken for the Asian Development Policy Report 2024: Aging Well in Asia, which was released at ADB’s 57th Annual Meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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