What Do We Mean When We Talk About Southeast Asia’s Demographics ‘Crisis’?

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What Do We Mean When We Talk About Southeast Asia’s Demographics ‘Crisis’?

The nations of the region are all experiencing shrinking workforces and rising life expectancy – in some cases at the same time.

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Southeast Asia’s Demographics ‘Crisis’?
Credit: Depositphotos

In October, The Economist ran an article with the headline, “Poor Asian countries face an aging crisis.” A regular reader of the region’s newspapers will probably get a sense of a looming demographic problem when there’s some coverage of it every month or so. Even Vietnam’s state-run media is allowed to get away with such headlines as “Vietnam’s aging 100-million population a demographic time bomb.” But what is this demographic “crisis” they’re speaking of?

It’s actually two somewhat separate issues. One is explained by births. The likes of Thailand and Singapore had a head start on globalization and urbanization, which everywhere tends to lead to lower fertility rates. Thailand’s fertility rate fell below 2.0 (the reproduction rate) in 1993, and Vietnam got there in 2005, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the source of most of the data for this article. Singapore now has the third lowest fertility rate in the world, according to the World Population Review. It’s expected to have the world’s lowest rate by 2050/2055, while Thailand is set to have the 13th lowest by then.

By 2035, Laos, the Philippines, Myanmar, and Timor-Leste are likely to be the only Southeast Asian countries with a fertility rate above 2.0. Indeed, latecomers to globalization, such as Laos and Myanmar, won’t drop below the 2.0 rate until 2041 and 2031, respectively. The other issue is explained by deaths. In 1990, the average Laotian could expect just 53 years; now it’s 69. In 1990, the average Malaysian could expect 70 years on Earth; now they can expect seven years more. As such, the majority of Southeast Asians now live until retirement, which wasn’t the case just a generation ago.

The first issue, of births, relates to dwindling workforces: the people who create national wealth, pay their taxes and, generally, don’t take too much money out of the state coffers. With fewer workers, industrial output suffers. More rural folk are pushed into the cities to take up the jobs, further depressing fertility rates. In turn, this reduces agricultural output, requiring more food imports. At the same time, a smaller population of wage-earners means less consumption, weakening the overall economy. But this will only affect a few Southeast Asian states.

Thailand’s workforce is expected to fall by almost 10 million people between now and 2050 (so a loss of around a fifth of its current workforce). By comparison, Vietnam’s workforce will only contract by around 200,000 people because of its sizeable number of people currently aged under 15 (around 22 percent of the population, compared to just 14 percent in Thailand). At the other end of the spectrum, the Philippines’ workforce will grow by 27.5 million between now and 2050. Cambodia’s will grow by around 2 million, Malaysia and Myanmar’s by around 3 million and Indonesia’s by a whopping 18 million (about a tenth of its current workforce).

Singapore is set to lose about a quarter of its working-age population by 2050, but this isn’t so dire since it is a welcoming country for migrants. Thailand, one could argue, is also welcoming but it’s far more selective in terms of ethnicity. Currently, almost all migrant workers in Thailand are from Laos, Cambodia, or Myanmar (so from similar cultures). So it’s unlikely that Bangkok will permit 10 million African, Arab, or South Asian migrants over the coming decades to make up for its shrinking workforce. However, the countries that Thailand typically gets its migrant workers from (Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar) won’t see massive increases in their own worker numbers: Laos will only add 2 million people to its workforce between now and 2050; Myanmar less than 3 million; Cambodia around 2.2 million. As such, Thailand may have to search wider (and from less similar cultures) if it wants to add 10 million migrants to its workforce in the coming decades.

What this does to Thailand’s relatively homogeneous society and ethnic-based nationalism is anyone’s guess, but one can guess that it will be politically jarring. Moreover, it’s not all good news for those countries with surging workforces, like Laos. One likely impact of a dwindling working-age population in Thailand is increased migration from Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, which will weaken their own workforces, especially the most educated and skilled. The “demographic dividend” they have of a growing workforce, especially when most of the rest of the world faces a shrinking pool of workers, may be less than can be expected if Thailand attracts more productive laborers.

Vietnam won’t suffer as steep a collapse in its workforce as Thailand, but it started from a poorer base. If Vietnam’s GDP per capita doubles over the next decade – it doubled between 2011 and 2021 – it would be only slightly higher than Thailand’s today. More starkly, if Vietnam’s GDP per capita triples, it would only be on par with Malaysia’s average wealth today. (And Malaysia won’t become an “aged” society until almost a decade after Vietnam, giving it an extra 10-year demographic boost). That said, it took Thailand just 19 years (from 2002 to 2021) for the share of its population aged 65 and above to rise from 7 percent to 14 percent, the points at which economists say defines when a society becomes “aging” and “aged,” respectively. As The Economist pointed out, the same process took Japan 24 years, the United States 72, and France 115. In 2021, when Thailand became an “aged” society, GDP per capita was just $7,000. When Japan became “aged” in 1994, its average wealth was five times higher.

The more serious problem is a growing population of retirees (a result of people living longer lives), which is something all Southeast Asian states will experience. As a whole, Southeast Asia will be “aged” by 2042, meaning that more than 14 percent of its population will be above 65. But not all of the region will get there at the same time. Let’s say there are four batches. The first are those that already have “aged” societies. Thailand passed that mark in 2020, and Singapore did the following year. Next are those that will become aged in the 2030s: Vietnam in 2034 and Brunei in 2037. The third are in the 2040s: Malaysia in 2042 and Indonesia in 2045.  The last batch is the youthful states: Myanmar will have an “aged” society in 2050; Cambodia in 2052; Laos in 2059; and the Philippines in 2061. (One reason why the likes of Laos and Myanmar will take longer to age is because their people die earlier. The average life expectancy of a Laotian man is around 67 years. It’s expected to rise to 72.2 years by 2050, but that would still be a shorter life than the average Thai can expect today.)

All Southeast Asian states will see their over-65 populations double or triple in the coming decades. The number of Filipinos aged over 65 will grow from 6.8 million today to 17 million in 2050. In Cambodia, it will grow from 1.1 million to 2.6 million. In Vietnam, retirees will go from 10 percent of the population to 20 percent. Thailand, again, will suffer the worst fate. Over 65s will account for almost a fifth of its population by 2030 and a third by 2050. Moreover, this aging process will be quicker than the growth of workforces (in those countries where workforces will grow). In the Philippines, for instance, there were 13.6 people aged 20-64 for every person aged 65-plus in 1990. The ratio will be 9.3 next year, 8.2 in 2030, and 5.4 in 2050. In Thailand, it was 12.9 in 1990; it’ll be just 1.7 in 2050.

This means the government will have to spend vastly more money on its non-productive (economically speaking) citizens. According to the World Bank, “Countries with old-age dependency ratios equal to Vietnam’s projected level in 2035 typically spend 8-9 percent of GDP on public pensions, well above the 2-3 percent that Vietnam has spent over the past decade.” Healthcare systems, many of which are rudimentary at best at present, will need to be built to cope with millions of older patients. Governments will need to become more interventionist and competent, and will probably come under increasing public pressure if they are seen as failing to care for the elderly. Indeed, this is a problem that most Southeast Asian governments (especially the authoritarian ones) haven’t had to deal with yet. One imagines that would become a much more politically combustible issue in Southeast Asia than in, say, Europe.

So, to talk of Southeast Asian demographic problems, at least until 2050, one has to talk about two different things. Thailand is the rare case of a country that will suffer a massive decline in its working-age population at the same time as a surging aging population. Singapore will, too, but the city-state has always been reliant on a migrant workforce. By comparison, most Southeast Asian countries will have larger workforces by 2050, but will also have a larger share of retirees as a percentage of the population. The region, as a whole, won’t be “aged” until the early 2040s. That should give the poorer, less developed states a good decade or two to prepare.