Thailand and Viet Nam Face a New Development Challenge: Ageing Populations

26 May 2011
Author: UNFPA

Recent reports show that people in Viet Nam and Thailand are living longer and choosing smaller families. This good news means, however, that both countries are confronting substantial challenges as their demographic structures change.

While an ageing citizenry has long been a policy concern of wealthier countries, less economically developed countries have historically faced the opposite challenge of very young and rapidly growing populations.

A global phenomenon

“Population ageing is a global phenomenon affecting every man, woman and child. The steady increase of older age groups in national populations, both in absolute numbers and in relation to the working-age population, has a direct bearing on the intergenerational and intra-generational equity and solidarity that are the foundations of society,” says Nobuko Horibe, Director of UNFPA’s Asia and Pacific Regional Office.

Improvements in health, nutrition and overall socioeconomic development in Viet Nam and Thailand have prompted changing reproductive and life expectancy trends. As citizens enjoy longer lives and birth rates decline, the two countries will soon face large older populations with significantly smaller workforces to support them.

Lower fertility is a key factor

Thailand’s population is predicted to begin declining before 2020. The country’s fertility rate has been below replacement level for 20 years and continues to fall, according to the recently published report “The Impact of Demographic Change in Thailand.” Between 1970 and 1990, Thailand’s fertility rate declined from over five children per woman to just above two – the fastest decline in the region during this period.

Data from Viet Nam’s 2009 census shows that the number of older persons -- and older women in particular -- has risen more rapidly than any other age group. In Thailand, the only section of the population expected to continue growing after 2020 are people over age 45. Governments in both countries are grappling with how to address these emerging challenges.

Demographic shifts are occurring rapidly

“Viet Nam has entered its ageing phase at a rapid pace, and thus, time is of the essence if national policies and programmes are to be designed and scaled up to meet the anticipated social protection and health requirements of a large elderly population,” says Bruce Campbell, UNFPA Representative in Viet Nam.

In both countries, shifting demographic trends are raising concerns about the possible impact on economic growth. Declining workforces and large retired populations could entail significant economic setbacks in countries that have only recently begun to enjoy the fruits of rapid growth.

“Thailand is developing so fast. There are lots of investments made here. The country exports a lot of products abroad. With Thailand’s birth rate dropping to startlingly low levels, who will run the factories in the future?” asked UNFPA Representative Najib Assifi at a recent symposium on the issue.

Looking ahead to appropriate policy options

Both governments acknowledge the importance of this issue are and are looking to other countries for examples of how to best manage their changing populaces.

“Population ageing has been included as one of the prioritized issues in the new national strategy on population and reproductive health for 2011-2020,” says Dr. Duong Quoc Trong, Director of Viet Nam’s General Office for Population and Family Planning.

Experts are emphasizing the importance of acting fast. Putting in place forward-looking policies now – including those that encourage higher fertility rates and increase support for elderly care – will prevent major economic and social problems in the future.

“We are at a unique moment in history where, based on carefully designed policy research, complemented by lessons learned from other countries, there are a number of policy options and investments that can be made that will have a far-reaching and positive impact on the health and wellbeing of the growing elderly populations,” says Mr. Campbell.

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