In academic and policy circles, ageing is becoming a hot topic. Ageing is now a global phenomenon which is particularly pronounced in the developed world due to factors such as declining fertility rates and increased longevity. Data by the World Population Prospects suggest that the percentage of those aged 60 and above is set to increase from 9% in 2019 to more than 16% by 2050. The issue of ageing populations has profound consequences for all facets of human life, ranging from poorer economic growth to an increased healthcare burden to changes in voting patterns. As such, countries need to rapidly adapt and establish the necessary infrastructure and policies to meet the needs of their rapidly shifting demographics. There are many ways in which the problem of population ageing can be tackled. One of the solutions would be to tap on the expertise of the immigrant pool to compensate for the ageing – and thus shrinking – labour force. Yet, while immigration has the potential to alleviate the negative effects of population ageing, it is not necessarily the most essential and efficient method as it brings about a host of problems. Therefore, it would be prudent to note that there are other solutions, such as encouraging more births, raising the retirement age and improving healthcare that should be considered and adopted alongside immigration policies to tackle an ageing population.
Those who claim that immigration is a panacea to the problems associated with an ageing population point to the fact that immigration supplements the shrinking labour force, offsetting the decline in the number of workers as well as lowering the median age of the general population. This will help to protect the government from a loss in tax revenue, as well as ensures that consumption levels are maintained. Many countries around the world including Singapore, the United States, and the United Kingdom are relying on immigration to supplement their ageing populations. Singapore has welcomed a surge of immigrants, with the number of new citizens skyrocketing from an average of 8200 per year in 1987 and 2006, to about 22 102 in 2017. Furthermore, immigration policies can be designed to attract new citizens or transient migrants who have reached adulthood and who possess the skill sets to contribute to the native community. In this way, countries can stand to benefit from having “instant adults” to boost their declining population and workforce numbers. This understanding has underpinned the plethora of schemes which Singapore uses to attract ‘quality foreign talent’, such as the International Manpower Program of the Economic Development Board and the Scheme for Housing of Foreign Talents. It appears then that immigration is viewed as a highly effective method to counter the negative economic consequences of a rapidly ageing population.
However, the reality is that immigration poses myriad problems as well. Even as immigration is heralded as a solution for economic stagnation, a large influx of temporary migrant workers can potentially depress wages if migrant workers are willing to accept lower salaries. This can be exacerbated by the absence of minimum wages. A labour economics research study published by Harvard University suggested that an influx of 125,000 Cuban migrants to Florida depressed the wages of ‘low-skilled, native-born’ workers by 10%-30% in the 1980s. Moreover, the availability of cheap migrant workers can also potentially disincentivise employers from investing in ways to increase productivity. The relatively easy access to cheap foreign workers has been found to be one of the main reasons behind the stagnant productivity growth in Malaysia and Singapore over the past decade. In addition, it can be argued that immigration may pose a threat to the social fabric of the community due to cultural differences resulting in discord between the immigrants and the natives. This is well demonstrated in the case of Singapore, a young, multicultural nation, having only recently gained independence. Her society consists of a patchwork of different races and religions, and the government has spent decades trying to forge a Singaporean identity. However, before the social glue has had time to set, Singapore flung her arms wide open and embraced hundreds of thousands of new immigrants who are oblivious to Singapore’s history, culture, people, and way of life. As a result, integrating them into the society presents a daunting challenge. The locals may also lack an understanding of the culture of these new immigrants and be offended as a result by certain behaviour. There was an incident involving a family from mainland China seeking mediation over their Singaporean Indian neighbours cooking curry, as they found the smell intolerable. Although this conflict was eventually settled, it generated a public uproar over the issues of immigration into a plural society. If such problems were left undealt with, it could snowball and result in widespread xenophobia. In a similar vein, immigration has been proven to generate considerable social tension elsewhere, such as in France, and the United Kingdom, where there is considerable hostility between the locals and immigrants. Particularly in the United Kingdom, Polish migrant workers have had bricks thrown through their windows and in two cases have had their homes petrol-bombed. Most of the attackers were working-class Protestants, who resented Polish migrants as much for their Catholic religion as for their perceived taking of jobs. It cannot be denied that the presence of immigrants has resulted in increased competition in various areas such as in housing and education, which may promote heightened feelings of resentment and bitterness among the local community. Despite all of these, it must be conceded that the concerns related to immigration can be addressed though political intervention, such as by tightening its immigration framework and putting in place more stringent foreign workforce controls to reduce the influx of new immigrants and foreigners. This, in turn, would make immigration a more viable solution, though it is not the only solution available.
Apart from immigration, there are a variety of other options that governments can consider to supplement the ageing population, one of which would be to encourage more births. Countries can and have implemented measures to facilitate child-bearing and child-rearing. In France and the Scandinavian countries, which have some of the highest fertility rates in Europe, couples are greatly assisted by the government. A French mother has at least 16 weeks of paid maternity leave as well as guaranteed job security and – if she has a third child – a monthly stipend of up to 1,000 Euros for a year. Similarly, in Norway, women are entitled to 10 months of paid maternity leave at their full salary or a year with compensation being about 80% of their salary. Since the policies have been in place for decades, the country’s fertility rates are approaching 2.1, roughly the point where a population is self-sustaining, thereby reducing the need for immigration. Clearly, it is evident that boosting the fertility rate would have a far more pronounced effect on mitigating the effects of an ageing population in the long run.
Next, there is a trend that is being observed in today’s world, especially in developed countries and that is the company’s willingness to hire older people. Many organisations recognize that there is a wealth of experience in the elderly that generally goes untapped. Firms organize workshops and skills training programmes to help the elderly remain relevant in the workplace in order to tap on these existing skill sets. This, in turn, renders immigration unnecessary. Examples of such initiatives can be observed in the US, where an association of non-profit groups and the government hold seminars targeted at helping older people hone their skills to increase their employability. In addition, due to the array of retirement options that allow employees to transit gradually to retirement, along with other benefits such as flexible schedules, vetted back-up eldercare and low-impact exercise classes, the National Institute of Health (NIH) of the United States has consistently been ranked as one of the best companies for older workers. This could explain why more than half of their 20,000 workers are aged 50 years or older. These measures would prove to be superfluous, however, if the retirement age is not raised. Across the world, the statutory retirement age has different legal implications: in some countries like Singapore, the retirement age prevents older workers who have not reached the retirement age from being unfairly retrenched on the pretext of old age, while in others workers are guaranteed a pension if they retire upon reaching retirement age. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), many developed countries have already passed legislation that would increase the retirement age in their countries to at least 67 years from 65 by 2050. Ultimately, raising the retirement age will help to address the problem of a dwindling workforce as well as the impending pension crisis. The notion that the elderly can still contribute meaningfully to the workforce and the economy should be popularised, and the necessary changes should be made to re-integrate them back into the workforce.
It is also crucial that governments promote active and healthy ageing through public awareness campaigns and education. Indisputably, a rapidly ageing population will place greater demands on the healthcare system. The World Health Organization warns that the social impact of population ageing could be enormous. It predicts a big rise in cancers, coronary heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases related to ageing. Health experts are also worried that as people get older, they could become more prone to an increasing number of debilitating conditions unless they keep themselves physically active. In Singapore’s context, research by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation suggest that Singaporeans spent an average of eight years in ill health even as life expectancy increased to 82. Additionally, research by Duke-NUS Medical School suggests that the percentage of those over 60 years of age suffering from three or more chronic health conditions had more than doubled, from 19.8% in 2009 to 37% in 2017. What this necessarily means is that healthcare systems have had to devote more resources to addressing the needs of the elderly, many of whom will be in and out of hospices. To make matters worse, healthcare costs are on the steady rise and the elderly and their caregivers are struggling to afford essential treatments. Policies which place greater emphasis on community-based care and the prevention and management of chronic ailments are thus more pertinent than ever. Countries and their leaders have responded to this astronomical challenge by publicly funding the healthcare system, best exemplified by England. It subsidizes elderly patients’ medical care expenses through the National Healthcare System and has implemented various programmes like the National Retention Strategy to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of treatment for the elderly. Closer to home, Singapore’s Ministry of Health has introduced a slew of campaigns and financial schemes, such as the $3 billion Action Plan for Successful Ageing, co-payment insurance schemes like Medisave and Medishield to help the elderly cope with medical expenses for age-related ailments. These initiatives will indeed go a long way in addressing the social impacts of a rapidly ageing population.
In short, population ageing is in a state of flux today. It is also an intractable problem with no magic silver bullet to solve the issue. As many countries start to experience its pervasive effects, it is vital to consider mitigating the negative aspects of it via a multi-pronged approach, instead of relying on immigration solely to solve the problems associated with population ageing. While immigration seems like the fastest, most feasible way to replace the loss in working adults, in the long run, it may turn out to cause more harmful than beneficial, not to mention that a country cannot depend entirely on immigration as it may not be permanent. Other alternative solutions such as boosting fertility rates, encouraging skills upgrading and providing healthcare and financial support to the elderly should be employed in tandem. Notwithstanding this, immigration, at the moment serves as the most efficient and pragmatic way to supplement the ageing population, but ideally, it has to be complementary to other alternate solutions discussed to inculcate a culture where “grey is the new gold”.