CHIANG RAI – Walk around a busy shopping mall anywhere in Thailand on a Saturday afternoon and you may think that this is a youthful country. Scores of young people shopping, hanging out; many young couples with children. Where are the old people, you might ask?
What if I told you that 16 per cent of Thais are over 60 years of age? That means one out of every six people in this country is no longer of working age. So if they are not in the shopping malls, where are they?
The presence of youngsters in shopping malls can be deceiving. Thailand is in fact becoming an aging society. While a number of Thai senior citizens choose to retire and live upcountry, a number are still living in Bangkok or other cities. However, most are forced to stay home a lot due to inadequate public utilities to help them. Or, they don’t have anyone to take care of them when they have to commute or go out.
If today one out of every six Thais is over 60, this figure will soon be one out of five. And in 20 or so years, this will be one out of four. If you looked at the Thai population as if it were a pizza, and sliced it up into eight pieces according to age groups, the elderly would represent only one slice, while people under 18 would represent three slices. Twenty-five years from now, the elderly will eat up two slices, and the under-18s two slices. So, proportionally, there will be many more old people.
On top of that, more people will be very old. In 2010, the average Thai male life expectancy was 70.4 years. Life expectancy is longer for women, at 77.5 years old. In 2030, life expectancy for men will increase to 74.1 years, while women are expected to live, on average, to 80.8 years. This where the additional slice of pizza comes in: one slice for the 60-70 age group, and another for the 70-90 age group.
Unfortunately, Thai society has not prepared well enough for this aging society. For instance, facilities to aid the elderly, such as wheelchair ramps or walking rails, are not available in many public places. Retraining programs to enable senior citizens to get back into the workplace do not exist.
While people in many societies traditionally are able to take care of aging parents, everything changes when people become very old. Now, some of those who are expected to take care of their aging parents are in their 60s or 70s themselves, and often are no longer capable of doing so. Their own children cannot possibly take care of their parents and grandparents, on top of their own children and busy jobs. So the job of taking care of the very oldest members of society may fall to the state, in the form of institutionalized care. This is a very expensive undertaking.
To complicate things further, the size of the population will also shrink in absolute terms. The number of children born to Thai women has steadily declined over the years, and now stands at an average of 1.6 children in a woman’s lifetime. This figure may continue to drop as more women become more educated and cope with the demands of a job, taking care of parents as well as a family, and personal interests. There are, after all, only 24 hours in a day. As a result, it is expected that the population of Thailand, now at 66.7 million, including 2.1 million migrant workers, will start declining by the year 2024, and eventually stabilize at around 67.95 million. This means that fewer people of working age will be required to take care of an increasing number of elderly people or children who are too young to take care of themselves. Whereas today young people represent three slices of pizza, they will soon represent only two slices.
So now there will be a smaller pie. But the slices representing old and very old people will have increased, and the slices representing young people will have decreased. It might still be a good pie, but it will be a more expensive pie, because the cost of providing care to the elderly is much higher than that of providing education and healthcare to children.
So what is the solution to all this pie-baking and concern about smaller pies?
We all agree that quality trumps quantity. Premium Japanese melons are sold for thousands of baht apiece because they are simply delicious. So Thailand will need to start baking a smaller but better pie, using only superior ingredients. No society has become rich (except those with abundant mineral resources) by simply selling agricultural produce), nor by sticking to basic manufacturing, without substantial value added. As poor countries become middle-income countries through investment in basic education, the next step, from middle-income to rich economy, comes from a shift towards services – finance, insurance, communications etc. In other words, they have to increase labor productivity by making massive investments in quality education.
Studies indicate that Thailand’s competitive edge has steadily eroded because the bulk of graduates lack analytical skills, critical thinking skills and the willingness to challenge and innovate. Thailand spends enormous amounts of money on education, but it goes towards infrastructure and salaries rather than quality improvement.
Additionally, it will be key to ensure that every young person’s potential be thoroughly cultivated and applied. With fewer children being born, Thailand simply will not be able to afford wasting the talents of a single child. This means making sure that everyone capable of doing so finishes at least a full twelve years of school. Two million children aged 5-14 are not in school – 20 per cent of all children in that age group. And of the children who do enter school, only slightly over half make it to the finishing line. Additionally, each year 123,000 adolescent girls fall pregnant, and many of them do not finish school. This should not be the case. Not only do they suffer as individuals, but all of society will suffer. How many engineers, inventors, producers, teachers, pilots, nurses and scientists will Thailand throw away because of this? They will not be producers. They will not be consumers. They will not be taxpayers. And without them, who will pay for the elderly?
At the same time, Thai society must seriously consider what kind of “elderly nation” it wants to be. Do we want to see a majority of Thais becoming passive senior citizens or energetic people who cherishing their ‘golden years”.
So next time you are in a mall on a busy Saturday afternoon, start noticing those with grey hair. There will be more and more of them. In the meanwhile, let’s start baking the good pies.
Caspar Peek is the United Nations Population Fund representative for Thailand.