Grey is the new black

Grey is the new black

Population ageing is often stereotyped as a drain on the economy, linked to a shrinking workforce, demographic imbalances and spiralling medical and social care expenses. Governments bear a heavy burden as they struggle to provide adequate healthcare funding and pension programmes.

This demographic shift is occurring worldwide. By 2050, the World Health Organization predicts that the number of people aged over 60 will reach 2.1 billion, a striking increase from 900 million in 2015.

This trend is exacerbated in Asia, which will have the oldest population in the world. In Japan, for instance, 37% of the population will be senior citizens by 2030. This is followed by 31% in South Korea and 27% in Thailand. In China, 25% of its 1.5 billion people will be 60-plus in 2030.

Some impacts have already been felt. Many companies are facing difficulty recruiting sufficient workers in labour-intensive industries. Growth is slow or almost flat in some countries as productivity and participation rates decline.

Last month, Seven-Eleven Japan Co, which operates more than 20,000 convenience store outlets, launched an experimental programme to shorten business hours. It is even considering revising its policy of operating 24 hours daily given the acute labour shortage.

Japan's leading delivery company, Yamato Transport, has increased its service fees for the first time in three decades to offset higher labour costs. It is also exploring an automated delivery through self-driving vehicles.

The shortage is so severe that Japan, one of the world's most homogeneous societies, has introduced a new visa programme to lure more foreign workers. It expects to receive 340,000 additional blue-collar workers in 14 sectors over the next five years.

In many countries, seniors are already working beyond the conventional retirement age at 60. In South Korea, as many as 45% of those aged 65-69 were still working in 2016, and for those aged 70-74 the figure was 33%, according to the OECD.

But there are those who prefer to take a glass-half-full view of population ageing. They foresee a dynamic emerging silver market that presents unprecedented business opportunities as products and services evolve to cater to their needs and aspirations.

Technology can play a vital role for easing the social and economic burdens of an ageing society. It could enhance the quality of life of senior citizens by enabling them to stay engaged with society, increase safety in their homes and enhance their health and quality of life.

Businesses that can adapt to this lucrative new-frontier market will be in a good position to survive and prosper. Opportunities abound for products and services that are universal in design and age-friendly.

This will also very advantageous as seniors are more financially stable with tremendous spending power. The global spending power of those aged 60-plus will reach US$15 trillion annually by next year, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

In many case, senior consumers share some common traits and needs such as those related to family and community, shopping experience, branding and product packaging, and health and wellness-related care.

Services that meet their needs could include pet care, gardening and lawn care, house cleaning, concierge service, transport, and technical assistance services, to name a few.

Older adults not only represent an important consumer segment, but also have value in the labour pool. As seniors generally are healthier and have longer life expectancy, they want to stay active and engaged. They are seeking more purpose and meaning and challenging the norms of retirement. Some are becoming more entrepreneurial.

In fact, the highest rate of entrepreneurial growth is not among Generation Y or millennials, but Baby Boomers and those aged 50 or more. The percentage of "encore entrepreneurs" starting their own businesses has grown from 14% in 1996 to 24% last year.

With this shift in mindset, providing access to life-long learning and training for older generations will be crucial as they need to continuously upgrade their skills and knowledge.

Senior citizens shouldn't be seen as a burden to the economy, but as an essential complement to the younger generation as they are usually more resilient and have the ability to provide wise advice they learned through decades of experience. They tend to be more emotionally stable and possess nuanced and complex thinking skills.

Through this mix of age and experience, the economic and societal benefits will flow in all directions. And creating a senior-friendly environment and keeping them relevant to the community will bring about a world with a brighter and more sustainable future for people of all ages to enjoy.

Tanyatorn Tongwaranan

Asia Focus Writer

Asia Focus Writer

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