60 is becoming the new 40 as people are living longer, but which Asian countries top the list for the oldest populations?
Today, we’ll be ranking the top 10 Asian countries with the oldest populations and pointing out some of the population trends in these countries, such as:
- How the large elderly population has impacted the economy and culture
- What it’s like to live and work there
- What this means for businesses entering the countries
Measuring An Aging Population?
The term “aging population” is challenging to measure precisely.
Traditionally, we’ve simply calculated the percentage of those over the age of 65 versus younger residents. But this doesn’t account for the fact that people are living longer and healthier lives.
In countries like Japan and China — where many are still strong enough to work through their 70’s — the traditional method of measurement no longer works.
That’s why the UN proposed the Prospective Old Age Dependency Ratio (POADR), which only considers people with remaining life expectancies of 15 years or less as “old.” This means that fewer people are classified as such and the ratio of old to younger residents increases at a slower rate.
POADR is more relevant in today’s context and better captures the dynamics of population aging.
Traditional vs POADR Country Rankings (Source)
With POADR, country rankings of aging populations have shifted. Let’s compare the traditional method versus the POADR method of measuring aging populations:
|Ranking||Traditional: Country (2020)||POADR: Country (Country)|
|1||Japan (52.0%)||Japan (22.4%)|
|2||Hong Kong (27.8%)||North Korea (16.5%)|
|3||Taiwan (23.9%)||China (14.3%)|
|4||South Korea (23.6%)||Sri Lanka (14.1%)|
|5||Thailand (20.2%)||Myanmar (13.4%)|
|6||Sri Lanka (19.6%)||Nepal (12.2%)|
|7||Singapore (19.1%)||India & Kazakhstan (11.7%)|
|8||China (18.5%)||South Korea (11.5%)|
|9||Macao (17.0%)||Taiwan (11.4%)|
|10||North Korea (14.7%)||Thailand (11.2%)|
Despite the change in measurement method, there are still countries that continue to show up in the top 10 such as:
- North & South Korea
- Sri Lanka
These countries also have some of the highest median ages — meaning you’re more likely to see people in their mid-30’s and 40’s rather than people in their teens and 20’s.
In contrast, countries like India and Nepal did not appear with the traditional measurement approach but popped up in the top 10 with POADR.
Both countries may have large populations, but the median population age is actually really young!
India’s median age is 28 while Nepal’s is 24 years old. The bulk of the population has yet to reach 65 years old. Both countries have considerably lower life expectancies, largely due to poverty and the lack of access to basic healthcare and food.
What about Singapore? Why did it drop off the POADR list?
Although Singapore has a large percentage of citizens above 65, our elders are generally quite healthy and fit. In addition, we have access to state-of-the-art healthcare and efficient socio-economic policies in place to combat poverty.
All of that results in longer life expectancies for Singaporean residents: the cut-off point to be considered “old” in Singapore is 70 years old for men and 74 for women. This leaves a much smaller ratio of old to working-age residents.
Population Trends In The Top POADR Countries In Asia
Japan’s population decline started in 2011. By 2018, there had been 3 consecutive years in which the birth rate was less than 1 million. Each year, Japan loses population numbers equivalent to a mid-sized city with its current growth rate of -0.27%, which experts attribute to 5 main reasons:
- High cost of raising children in Japan
- More women working longer and choosing their career over having children
- Japan’s reluctance to accept foreign immigrants
- Lack of well-paying jobs, preventing men from starting families as they can’t afford to do so
- An alarming suicide rate amongst young people
Japan’s aging population and declining fertility rate increases the tax burden and shrinks the labour force. This spells trouble for labour-intensive industries (motor vehicles, electronics, etc.) in keeping up with current production levels, and Japan could ultimately lose its status as the 3rd largest economy in the world. This impact of aging could potentially drag Japan’s GDP down by 1 percentage point over the next 3 decades according to the IMF.
In addition, Japan has a work culture in favour of a seniority system: the longer you work, the higher your wages will be. This means younger workers have fewer opportunities for growth and promotion, damaging worker morale.
This has also led to many young Japanese becoming socially withdrawn (hikikomori) as a result of the high pressure, low wages, and difficulty in finding good jobs. That’s why despite Japan having the highest life expectancy in the world, it unfortunately also has one of the world’s highest suicide rates for people under 30.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea)
Surprisingly, North Korea’s population has yet to reach its peak. Despite that, the population growth rate has slowed to 0.44% annually with a declining birth rate. This is detrimental to its workforce and military power, especially as they’re closed off to immigrants.
Economic growth has stagnated in the recent decades due to North Korea’s self-reliant policies. Combined with the growing aging population, the lower productivity and efficiency is further impacting North Korea’s local economy.
Since the main industries driving North Korea’s growth involve the military and agriculture, these labour-intensive jobs will see a labour shortage as older workers start retiring. It’s likely that the younger generations will have to work much harder to generate the same level of productivity.
China’s population is expected to peak in 2030, but it’s still tackling issues such as:
- A shrinking labour force
- An increasing elderly population
- Sex-selective abortion
- The prior one-child policy has led to an overall low birth rate
With the culture’s preference of males over females, there’s now a ratio of about 120 boys for every 100 girls. Estimates are that the percentage of men in their 30s who have yet to tie the knot will increase fivefold by 2030, further impacting population growth in China.
Given all this, experts are concerned that the country’s future economic development will slow down. After all, China’s growth is largely attributed to its abundant, cheap workforce and low social costs.
More resources will shift to support elderly healthcare and pensions. This also moves funds away from investment and production — on top of the declining labour supply and increased spending obligations.
That means that China’s younger generations will find it all the more challenging to support large numbers of elderly relatives, especially in single child families.
Sri Lanka’s population is expected to reach its peak by 2037. Even though it has a fertility rate of 2.21, the country’s net negative migration is the main culprit behind their slow population growth.
Sri Lanka is a developing country with a large workforce and lots of potential for growth. But if they don’t use their resources to better sustain future development, the younger generation of workers will face a huge shortage of jobs and opportunities in the near future.
With free healthcare, the growing aging population will increase the government’s social security burden.
The Sri Lankan elderly have traditionally depended on family as their main caregivers and support base. To compound the issue, the majority of the elderly population are unable to support themselves with the income from social security and retirement benefits alone. The younger members of the household are expected to support the elders within the family.