At the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Dalian, China, experts discussed the challenges and opportunities that aging populations present to business.
(excerpted from strategy + business)
The world is in the midst of an epochal demographic shift that will reshape societies, economies, and markets over the next century. The big news is that the world population, according to United Nations forecasts, will either stabilize or peak around 2050, after growing for centuries at an ever-accelerating rate. The main reason is the decline occurring in birthrates as nations advance economically, and it is already having a significant impact: As birthrates drop and better health care prolongs life spans, the world’s population is aging rapidly. For example, between 1950 and 2000, the percentage of the world population older than 60 rose almost imperceptibly to 10 percent from 8 percent. By 2050, however, that percentage will more than double, to 21 percent. And in many countries — notably Japan and those in western Europe — the share of population age 60-plus will be more than 40 percent by mid-century.
The demographic dynamics in the developing world are radically different. Birthrates are still high, and populations are both growing and becoming younger. Over the next few decades, many of these countries will experience what David Bloom, chair of the department of global health and population at Harvard’s School of Public Health, has called a “demographic dividend”: a rising proportion of young people entering the workforce, driving productivity and economic growth.
There are also anomalies among nations. In the developed world, the United States has many of the same demographic attributes as Japan and Europe, but high rates of immigration are offsetting the trend toward aging. In the developing world, the population of China is destined to begin aging rapidly as the result of the government’s past policies to limit population growth. Today, only 11 percent of the Chinese population is older than 60, but by 2040 the proportion will rise to 28 percent.
These demographic shifts will drive massive change in markets and economies, and will require entirely new approaches on the part of both policymakers and business leaders. But the shifts seem to get less attention than they deserve — largely because they take place over time spans much longer than the political and business cycles that drive most legislative and managerial agendas. To identify some of the most significant challenges that will need to be addressed as populations age, strategy+business teamed with the World Economic Forum to convene a roundtable of notable thought leaders with expertise in Asia.
What would you consider the most significant challenge that political and business leaders face related to aging populations?
Yoshito Hori, Dean of the Globis Management School: We’re seeing a very big generation gap opening up, between the older people who are enjoying government benefits and the younger generations that are bearing the financial burden. Japan is a rich country, as are many of the other countries where the population is aging, and people today seem to feel we can afford the policies we have; there is no apparent urgent need for policies to change. But people are not aware enough of what’s going to happen in 10 or 15 years’ time. Budgets and resources are limited, and at some point you have to make decisions: Is the priority of the country to care for the elderly or to look to younger generations for innovation? It will be an issue in the future, and there will be a need for much discussion.
As we turn to potential solutions to some of the problems posed by population aging, are there approaches from business that could be helpful?
Jean-Pierre Lehmann, Professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland: We have to explore all sorts of different options. One obvious solution that would be beneficial for both Japan and Europe as they try to deal with aging populations would be to open up the frontiers to migration and allow in younger workers from less-developed countries. Another idea is to encourage elderly people to live elsewhere — it’s something the Japanese tried in the past, but dropped. It was unpopular, but it’s something I’m advocating in Europe. It helps on the pension front. You say, “Look, the bad news is that we have to reduce your pension. The good news is we’re moving you to Libya, where the standard of living is much lower and your pension will go a much longer way.”
What about the skills gaps that we see opening in the developed countries where the aging population is currently rising? The demographic forecasts show that the same kinds of gaps will begin to appear in China a decade or two out. What are the challenges and the opportunities for corporations?
HORI: I think there are two main things. One challenge for corporations is losing a market, which is what you see if you look at Japan. There’s a shortage of children; when you look at primary schools, for example, you just don’t need the number that exist. This is a big burden for companies that are serving the younger-generation market. There has to be a big market shift in terms of the corporate sector.
The second challenge is the workforce, because it is going to shrink as well. How should we incorporate such a decline? There are several dimensions: One is the need to increase productivity through approaches like robotics and IT. The second is migrant and immigrant workers, as we discussed. The third is offshoring, shifting the business to either China or India. So I think this is going to be a major challenge as companies adjust to these shifts.
Your mention of offshoring raises the question of the degree to which companies are going to be able to do demographic arbitrage — locating their headquarters and production in relation to where they can find an employee base or markets for their goods and services.
Vanessa Wang, Mercer LLC: For 90 percent of the companies in these countries, there is a labor force issue. Companies that I consult with are offshoring many, many jobs to China and India because of skills issues and the advantage of the youth dividend there.
One of the main costs of running a business is represented by the cost of fixed salaries, because salaries don’t go backward — they keep going upward; the same is true of health-care premiums and pension costs. It costs companies a lot to hire older employees. So rather than fill their skills gaps locally or by hiring older workers, companies go offshore to solve their problems. And until there are good incentives for them to meet the skills shortages in their own countries, that will continue. In many ways, companies can’t stop what they do; at the end of the day their job is to keep producing more profit. Solving this problem would require innovation in financing pensions and health care so the companies aren’t bearing all the costs, as well as retraining and other issues. It will take a shifting — a redistribution — of social resources.
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