Crossroads Asia

Central Asia: Neither Forever Young Nor Getting Much Older

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Crossroads Asia

Central Asia: Neither Forever Young Nor Getting Much Older

The median age is about 25 in Central Asia, but those who set policies are decidedly older and less reform-inclined.

While the World Bank classifies the states of Central Asia as “Young Countries” in its aging report–titled “Golden Aging: Prospects for Healthy, Active and Prosperous Aging in Europe and Central Asia” and released today in Vienna–the report nonetheless warns that in the coming decades the region may age rapidly due to lower fertility rates. Increases in longevity, which make other regions older but not necessarily less populous, are negligible–the average life expectancy across the five states of Central Asia is now 68 years, it was 64 years in 1995. The report nonetheless stresses that “the social and economic consequences of aging societies are complex and diverse – but not necessarily negative.”

The World Bank’s report says that aging in eastern Europe and Central Asia is occurring somewhat differently than it has in western Europe and East Asia. All of Europe and East Asia are considered to be advanced in aging terms, but the rise in average age in eastern Europe and Central Asia is “largely attributable to low and declining fertility rates rather than to increases in longevity.”

People in East Asia have been having fewer children, but they have also been living longer. The same is not true in Europe and Central Asia. This carries the threat of sharply slowing population growth and “in more than half the countries in Europe and Central Asia the population is already shrinking.” In addition, emigration has accelerated population declines–the young leave and don’t necessarily return. Interestingly, for the whole region “the mortality rates of middle-aged men were higher in 2009 than in 1959.”

Demographic transition is a shift prompted by industrialization and development that sees countries move from having high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates. The transition is not linear, death rates fall first as societies develop–improvements in sanitation, food supply, and medicine help people live longer. Then birth rates fall as a number of societal changes take place–from access and acceptance of contraception to wage increases, better educational opportunities to movement away from reliance on child labor in agriculture, through technology or social pressure. This process has been at work across the world and the ECA region is split between two different stages at the moment.

Turkey and Central Asia have only recently entered the late stage of demographic transition, with falling fertility and mortality at all ages. The rest of the region is not only geographically but also demographically closer to Western Europe and has already reached an advanced stage of aging. Only Japan currently has an older population than Europe. With persistently low fertility, Europe’s population is expected to decline in the next 40 years—the only region in the world to do so.

Aging is not necessarily a negative thing, though a demographic boon it may also be an economic burden. “A long-held belief is that aging populations tend to go hand-in-hand with economic decline,” Hans Timmer, World Bank Chief Economist for Europe and Central Asia, said in a press release. “However, a smaller size of young cohorts opens the opportunity to equip them with better quality education and more capital, ultimately boosting their productivity.”

Still, uncertainties abound regarding how long people will work, whether productivity will increase or decline with an aging workforce, and whether aging societies will experience a rise in inequality as well. Many of these concerns can be mitigated, the report says, by proactive policies with regard to heath and education, especially. Aging societies do not have to be synonymous with stagnation and decline, though they are often conceptualized this way.

Central Asia, relatively young, has a conundrum: “Young countries have more time to invest in education and set up fiscally sustainable pension and health care systems, but the urgency should not be ignored because these countries also have high relative voting participation among the reform-averse old-age groups.” Central Asia may be younger overall, but those who dictate government policies in the region are not. Central Asia’s median age as is around 25 (according to WHO data) but its leaders remain exceedingly old.