"the sheer size of the population shifts in the largest economies is remaking the face of Asia and has caused consternation among the oldest and richest countries."

By 2050, Asia will transition from one the youngest regions in the world to one of the oldest. This is due, in large part, to the rapid aging of China, where the estimated median age has increased from 35 to 46. The populations of Japan and South Korea are experiencing an increase in their median ages from 45 and 38, respectively, to 53.

It is not just that these populations are growing older; they are also contracting due to low fertility and immigration rates. Overall, Asia will see its percentage of the global population decrease, along with Europe, while the Americas will remain constant and Africa will increase.

These demographic trends are not universal across Asia, since the UN predicts that working-age population in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines will peak in 2058 and 2085, respectively. However, the sheer size of the population shifts in the largest economies is remaking the face of Asia and has caused consternation among the oldest and richest countries.

asia statsAccording to the PEW Research Center, significant majorities of the population in China, Japan, and South Korea believe that aging is a “major problem.” This is not a surprise, given that a shrinking working population could lead to an economic slowdown driven by an imbalance in the dependency ratio for social insurance systems.


Over the past 25 years, China has enjoyed dramatic economic growth due, in large part, to an incredible abundance of cheap labor. China has also been able to increase its life expectancy by approximately seven years from 68 to 75. However, thanks to the one-child policy, the days of abundant cheap labor may soon be coming to an end.

China may also see the development of a significant imbalance of the working age population compared to the retired population. For example, it is expected that over the next decade, the number of pensioners is expected to grow by approximately 100 million, even though the workforce is expected to stay the same. Economists have suggested that China will reach what is known as the Lewis turning point, or the point where they no longer see economic advantage from moving workers from agriculture to manufacturing.

China is also experiencing a challenge with the National Security Pension Fund that only has 2 percent of GDP in reserves. This is incredibly small compared to other economies with a similar demographic profile. The amount people receive from pensions is also considered small, and there are large numbers of people unable to support themselves in old age.

As early as the mid-1980s, the China National Committee on Aging began working with AARP to examine and address demographic change. AARP continues this relationship with China today and works closely with a number of groups affiliated with the China Ministry for Human Resources and Social Security.

In 2013, China began increasing the retirement age for the first time since the 1950s. This is a good policy and essential to correct the demographic challenges. Adding years to working life should help alleviate some of the labor shortages, and drive growth. China must ensure that there are adequate opportunities for experienced workers for this policy to work.

China also eased its one-child policy, which may drive population growth. Early evidence suggests that there has been little change upwards in birth rates. However, it is too early to assess the outcomes of this policy shift.

For all of the challenges facing China, its underdeveloped heath care and longevity economy have provided abundant opportunities for private investment. A number of organizations are entering the “silver market,” and it is clear to me that the government and private sector have embraced the opportunity.


Japan has had the luxury of becoming rich before becoming old. They have also had the luxury of aging at a substantially slower rate than China. However, this hasn’t eliminated the challenges they face. In fact, this may have compounded them.

Japan still struggles with a male-dominated, youth-obsessed business culture. This has created barriers for women to enter the workforce. It has also created barriers for companies to recruit and retain experienced talent, and salarymen are routinely retired at 60 due to mandatory policies.

This all began to change in 2013 when the Japanese government, under the Law Concerning Stabilization of Employment of Older Persons, began increasing the retirement age to 65 by 2025. This was a big move for Japan and will have profound effects on their corporate culture and their economy.

Japan has also struggled to embrace immigration—a key driver to economic growth. Immigration has routinely been proposed as a way to help the economy grow. However, proposals have either failed to achieve support or projects have failed to achieve traction. This includes efforts by the Japanese government to recruit Filipino nurses.

For all of the challenges, there are significant bright spots in Japan. Cities across the country are becoming more livable and joining the World Health Organization Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. There are also technological innovations occurring across Japan’s care sector.

Evidence of this came earlier in 2014 when Japan hosted the G7 Global Dementia Legacy Event. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe asked Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare Yasuhisa Shiozaki to formulate a new policy program to accelerate measures for dementia. In his closing remarks, Minister Shiozaki outlined three foundational pillars of the new plan:

  • Implement an integrated community care system for dementia by 2025
  • Formulate a plan to foster dementia-friendly communities
  • Prioritize the needs of the persons with dementia, not the needs of the care system.

Japan is also leading the world in the development of 50-plus technologies, including robots, that assist with health and caregiving needs.

South Korea

South Korea is the middle child of demographic change in Asia. It has been swift and dramatic for this nation, yet cultural norms and government policy remain relatively youth-focused. However, that appears to be changing.

This year, the Korea Labor Foundation, which is part of the Korea Ministry of Labor, began closely examining the concept of recareering, or transitioning older and experienced employees out of their salaried positions into new jobs. This unique approach takes into account Korean reticence to increase the retirement age—it has only increased from 55 to 60 in 2015. However, there is heated debate on whether the government or private sector should pay for recareering.

Unlike Japan, South Korea is embracing immigration at a greater rate. The New York Times reported on this in 2012, noting that ‘the number of marriage migrants grew to 211,000 in 2011 from 127,000 in 2007. Migrant workers more than doubled to 553,000 in 2011, from 260,000 in 2007—not counting those who overstay their visas and work illegally.’

South Korean businesses are embracing the opportunity of population aging and many companies have examined or begun implementing 50-plus strategies. This has led to hyper-competition for the 50-plus and driven the development of new product lines, as well as start-ups.

Big Picture

While many challenges still exist, each country is embracing the new realities of population aging and demographic change. Some nations have seen better outcomes than others. However, countries across the region that seize the opportunities presented are seeing great results.


about the author

Bradley Schurman is a Senior Advisor with AARP International with expertise in employment and volunteering. He is responsible for a number of AARP’s global strategic relationships, including those with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and nations within Asia and Europe. Mr. Schurman also administers AARP Best Employers International. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from American University, and lives in Washington, DC.




Leave a Comment

Only comments approved by post author will be displayed