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Can Technology Address Asia’s Aging Dilemma?

Asia is graying rapidly. From 2020 to 2050, the region’s share of people aged 65 or above will double from 9.2 percent to 18 percent, exceeding the 16 percent global average by 2050. This trend raises the concern that some countries will struggle to provide adequate social services and income support programs for the elderly, while continuing to stimulate economic growth through large-scale investments in infrastructure and human capital development.

Many economies in developing Asia face the risk of growing old before they become rich. Some will experience a drastic reduction of their working age (15-64) population, as well as aging of the current workforce. The productive population in Hong Kong, China and South Korea will shrink by 10 percent between 2017 and 2030. From 2015 to 2050, the average age of the region’s workforce is expected to increase from 37 to 40.

The Role of Technology

One way to reignite productivity growth for rapidly aging Asian economies is to tap technology. Experience from “aged” advanced economies suggests that technology can help improve health and longevity, transform jobs and the workplace, and improve the performance of the labor market by training workers and upgrading job-matching services that pair job candidates with the right roles.

The first driver of this process is advancements in medical sciences and biotechnology, which contribute to longevity and healthy life span, leading to a longer and healthier work life. For example, the estimated work capacity of adult men (55-69) increased by an average of 5.5 years in OECD countries during 1977-2010. Evidence shows healthier workers are also more productive.

Second, technology is encouraging labor participation of elderly workers and enhancing their productivity. Automation has transformed jobs by reducing the number of manual and physically demanding tasks performed by humans. Adoption of industrial robots in the region is projected to grow 120 percent from 2016 to 2020. Technology also allows firms to implement flexible work practices.

Third, job-matching and training services assisted by new technology have great potential to bring more seniors into the workforce. Innovative, customized, and interactive training using modern technology will likewise help build their skills.

Learning from Advanced Economies

Experience from advanced economies that have already made the demographic transition show that taking advantage of the longevity dividend is feasible, given greater policy attention and proactive, innovative measures. Studies show that the growth of these advanced economies has moderated (compared to some fast-growing middle-income economies) but is nevertheless sustained.

Asia can continue to achieve strong, inclusive growth by leveraging the talent, skills and experience of its older demographic.

For example, the working-age population has been shrinking in the EU from 67 percent to 65 percent between 2006 and 2016, with older persons (aged 65 or over) reaching 19 percent of the total population. The EU’s growth has moderated from around 3 percent to 2 percent over the same period.

More seniors above the normal retirement age of 65 are now employed in OECD countries. The average labor force participation in the 65 to 69 age group increased from 20 percent in 2006 to 26 percent in 2016, and the rate for those aged 70 to 74 also climbed from 12 percent to 15 percent in the same period. Notably, the share of employed seniors in the 65 to 69 age bracket grew from 28 percent to 43 percent in New Zealand, from 18 percent to 26 percent in Australia, and from 35 percent to 43 percent in Japan.

Technological change is a key factor that can enhance labor force participation above current retirement ages, as well as the productivity of these workers. For example, automation and artificial intelligence supplement and complement labor and make jobs and tasks less physically demanding and more precisely executed.

Steps To Empower the Elderly in Asia

Developing Asia needs to harness technology to overcome the negative consequences of a contracting and aging workforce while maximizing the benefits of longevity for inclusive and sustained growth. However, the gains are not automatic. Here are three ways they can be realized.

First, technological innovation and adoption must be actively promoted through sufficient funding for research and development. Those regional economies most at risk from aging should do what it takes to foster innovation and adoption of age-related technology and lifelong learning, as well as provide working environments conducive to senior workers.

In particular, efforts to bridge the “gray divide” can be strengthened by accommodating seniors’ specific needs and concerns. For example, customizing digital devices to accommodate the needs of the elderly, as is done in Japan through user-friendly senior smartphones, can promote seniors’ access to digital technology. Seniors also prefer learning about new technologies and devices through informal training (from their families and friends) rather than through formal training programs. 

A second way to engage more seniors in productive work is to provide lifelong learning and continue upgrading their cognitive and noncognitive skills. It is important to provide workers of all ages with opportunities to continually upgrade their skills and reskill throughout their careers while developing human capital and allocating resources to promote technological innovation and adaptation.

Finally, enhancing cross-border mobility for workers can help reduce labor shortages and the skills mismatches experienced across much of developing Asia. Young and populous countries can complement the demographic transition in aging countries.

To gain from potential complementarity across economies with varying demographic profiles, countries need to invest in connectivity and skills development, reduce barriers to labor mobility and migration, and strengthen regional cooperation to address their common challenges.

Asia is aging, but it can continue to achieve strong, inclusive growth. Longevity gains can be obtained from harnessing the older demographic in ways that leverage their talent, skills and experience.

This piece first appeared in the Asian Development Blog.

Cyn-Young Park

Director for Regional Cooperation and Integration, Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department at Asian Development Bank

Cyn-Young Park has been a main author and contributor to the Asian Development Outlook and participated in the G-20 Development Working Group. She also managed a team of economists to assess the socioeconomic benefits of ADB programs and projects and provided country diagnostic studies for effective ADB support to its developing member countries.

Aiko Kikkawa Takenaka

Economist, Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department at the Asian Development Bank

Aiko Kikkawa Takenaka covers the research portfolios of labor migration and remittances, aging and demographic changes, and regional research collaboration. From 2001 to 2010, she was with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and served as the Head of the IOM Labor Migration Unit in Manila, overseeing projects and activities in the areas of labor migration and remittances.

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