February 2, 2010

ASIA: Aging Asia problem 'urgent'

BEIJING, China / Global Times / Asia-Pacific / February 2, 2010

Longer lifespans, falling fertility rates and the growing ranks of elderly people in Asia can pose serious global problems, a leading expert warned Monday. Yves Guerard, secretary general of the International Actuarial Association, said at a pensions industry conference in Singapore that the aging issue was a "big, immediate, urgent problem" for the world's most populous region.

Many countries face critical economic problems as people live longer - thanks to medical advances - and fewer young people enter the workforce, as birth rates stagnate. Photo credit: AP/The Straits Times

"I will compare that with climate change. We prefer not to believe in that because it's inconvenient," he said, referring to former US vice president Al Gore's celebrated environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Problems linked to aging populations will complicate Asian economies' recovery from the global financial crisis, said Guerard, whose organization's members deal with complex insurance forecasting systems.

"Longevity increases, combined with the decrease in fertility, are pushing up the dependency ratio and the burden of the recovery," he said. Countries with a large number of elderly people and a low birthrate will face demographic and economic problems supporting a large number of seniors, Guerard said.

Tan Hak Leh, deputy president of the Life Insurance Association of Singapore, said Asia's elderly population will far outstrip those in the rest of the world in 40 years.

"Asia's population of those above 60 years old is estimated to quadruple by 2050 to 1.2 billion people ... four times the size of senior citizens in the US and Europe combined," he warned at the conference. Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong are among the world's 10 fastest-greying territories, Tan said. With the rapidly aging societies, Asia's pension systems need modernizing urgently to ensure that they are financially sustainable and provide adequate retirement incomes, according to OECD's report on pensions. Guerard said efforts to solve the "longevity problem" by raising the retirement age to allow the elderly to continue contributing economically were making slow progress.

"Countries have been very slow in moving up the retirement age, and even those that move it up move it in a very timid way," he said. [rc]