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Can we solve the world’s ageing population crisis by 2035?

Key approaches and technologies can help an increasingly ageing population live independently.

Key approaches and technologies can help an increasingly ageing population live independently. Image: Danie Franco/Unsplash

Deng Honghao
Chief Executive Officer, Butlr Technologies
Jiani Zeng
CPO and Cofounder, Butlr Technologies
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

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  • An increasingly ageing population – especially in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam – will have a major impact on the global economy by 2035.
  • The effects will be especially acute in China, as 30% of its population will be aged 60 and over.
  • Countries across the Sinosphere face dwindling pension funds, an unstable healthcare infrastructure and an ageing population seeking care at home.
  • Technology can help bridge the gap between generations without compromising the benefits of ageing independently.

Few, if any, Chinese members of Generation Alpha (those born in or after 2010), will have those experiences of living near or with ageing family members. The next generation is being born at a time of falling fertility rates and a steadily rising ageing population that will not have enough caretakers and healthcare infrastructure to support it properly.

As these demographic shifts have a global impact, the effects will be acutely felt in China. Despite the end of the one-child policy in 2016, the ageing population will outnumber younger generations. Here we take a closer look at these unstoppable forces, the ripple effect on China’s economy as well as the global economy, and actions we can take now.

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Unstoppable forces

To understand the impact of the growing, ageing population, consider the following factors that will be irreversible by the year 2035.

  • Based on the United Nations 2022 World Population Prospects, 30% of the population in China, an estimated 400 million people, will be aged 60 and over.
  • Declining birth rates will lead to a declining working age population, resulting in China’s growth being reduced by 1% every year from 2035-2050, according to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, as reported by Nikkei.
  • China’s pension funds, the primary source of income for retirees, will be depleted, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

When simple solutions are actually complex

These issues will not be easily resolved. Simple solutions such as incentivizing families to have more children is not working. Social influences, economic uncertainty and greater access to education has delayed marriage and children. In China, the childbearing age has been rising steadily over the past two decades. In 2000, it was 26 and as of 2022, it was 29, according to Pew Research. When those children grow up, they opt to live in cities and take knowledge worker roles, leaving crucial farm and factory jobs open or filled by an ageing workforce that can’t afford to retire due to small pensions.

Second, the talent shortage of medical professionals will be acute. In China, there are two doctors per thousand people. Comparatively, there are four doctors per thousand people in Western European countries and 2.7 in the US, according to the World Bank.

While predicting the effects of these challenges can be tricky, there are similar lessons for China and other countries to learn from what happened in Japan during the 1990s. A rising ageing population combined with a housing market bubble resulted in a decade of flat economic growth followed by deflation.

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What actions we can take now for the aging population?

To mitigate the impacts of aging populations on economies, we can be strategic in the use of technology by investing in solutions that allow us to look after the ageing population in the followings ways:

  • Proactively monitor health and detect potential changes: This approach helps address issues before they become medical emergencies. According to research conducted by Bern University and published in Nature, using connected sensing devices to remotely monitor motion, activities, and moving speed is a promising way to help transition healthcare from a reactive to a proactive, precision medicine-oriented approach.

    Consider the fact that the amount spent on medical costs as a result of patient falls is $50 billion a year in the US alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). These costs can easily be offset through proactive monitoring. For example, medical sensors can provide the necessary insight for caregivers to take action quickly while ensuring the privacy of individuals. The use of wall-mounted sensors at a senior care facility in the US led to preventing an estimated 400 potential falls and faster response times, under 30 seconds, when a fall did occur.
  • Ensure reliable access to telehealth: As of December 2022, only 62% of rural areas in China had internet access, according to Statista. Yet 37.5% of China’s older population live in rural areas, according to the World Bank. To support the elderly in these communities, there should be stable, low-cost internet access to provide telehealth services. The costs can be defrayed through the government and/or by providing basic internet service.
  • Incentivize home improvements and technology investments: To support loved ones ageing with privacy and dignity, either independently or with loved ones.

Success will also require classic, practical methods as well. For instance, we must also establish the infrastructure that allows younger generations to properly care for the elderly. This includes:

  • Encourage and support younger generations to look after the elderly: For example, support caregivers and motivate volunteers in the workplace by providing flexible work arrangements without fear of job loss or career setbacks.
  • Introduce students to career opportunities in senior care earlier: Recruit new workers with elevated pay and additional incentives to fill these much-needed roles. Additionally, establish relevant disciplines and training in universities and vocational educational institutions.

The ageing population should not be solely viewed as a potential economic crisis. Rather, it’s a call to reinforce or create new infrastructures – economically, socially, and technologically – that respect and care for the generations that came before us. After all, they are the ones that have brought forth innovation and prosperity to the next generations. By taking the right steps today, China’s younger populations will be fortunate enough to share meaningful experiences with grandparents and older generations living nearby, independently, while carrying on the Chinese tradition.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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