In the 1960s to 1980s, before its asset-price bubble burst leading to the Lost Decades, Japan was experiencing booming economic growth brought about by its rapidly expanding workforce. Like all developed economies, the excessive focus on career development led to a declining birth rate. Fast forward a few decades, and Japan is now grappling with a dwindling and aging population, struggling to cope with its economic ailments which are being compounded by its skewed demography. Similarly, many developed countries in Asia and Europe are facing this complex issue of an aging population amidst falling Gross Domestic Products (GDP) and slowing economic growth. Often, the repercussions of such situations are conflated with negative views of the elderly as burdens to society. While I acknowledge that the elderly may require greater public expenditure and community care, particularly with respect to healthcare, I believe that the elderly can continue to contribute if elderly participation in the workforce is encouraged and sociocultural perspectives of the elderly are changed. Furthermore, the elderly can bring about benefits and opportunities in certain sectors, and we need to change our mindsets to recognize these.
Some argue that the elderly may be a burden to society in that they put a strain on public finances. With old age comes decreased mobility, slower reactions and illnesses, which means that many elderly persons do not work and may require financial and healthcare support from the government. In many countries, the government provides social support and financial support for the elderly, whether in terms of pension or providing medical services. With limited resources, countries have to divert funds away from other sectors to support the elderly, hence giving rise to the view that the elderly are a burden. Moreover, in many countries such as South Korea and Italy, an aging population is an issue which comes hand-in-hand with falling birth rates and hence the growing tax burden is being supported by a dwindling band of younger workers. More than US$5 billion was spent on healthcare for the elderly in Singapore in 2015 as healthcare expenditure for each senior is about four times that for the average person. In Canada, the average amount spent on private and public healthcare services is 3 times higher for a person aged over 65 than an average person. Clearly, one can see that the elderly do pose a considerable burden to public finances.
In addition, the elderly are sometimes viewed as a burden in that they place financial and emotional stress on their families. As senior citizens face higher incidence of illnesses, their families are confronted with increasing healthcare expenditure, among many other costs. The working adults have to pay for bills, loans, mortgage, and daily necessities, and hence the financial burden of supporting their elderly dependents will further increase this load. Moreover, the elderly require more time and attention due to factors such as higher fall risk. This further engenders mental and emotional stress in families. In Germany and the United Kingdom (UK), many families cannot afford to provide necessary medical attention to the elderly due to rising healthcare costs. Research conducted by the Lien Foundation in Singapore suggests that the cost of looking after a disabled senior at home, without subsidies, can go up to $3,100, which is an exorbitant cost for the average Singaporean household, which has a monthly household income of $9,293. The alternative of sending the elderly to 24/7 care centres is also ruled out for many families due to the exorbitant prices involved. In this fast-paced society where money is a scarce resource, it is indeed difficult for families to find sufficient time and capital to care for the elderly. Therefore, the elderly may be seen as a burden to their families.
Furthermore, it is highlighted that the elderly may not possess the relevant skillsets to adapt to a rapidly changing socio-economic landscape. With industrialization and modernisation, new skillsets are required in workplaces and the elderly find it difficult to compete against technologically-savvy youths who have higher productivity. According to National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser, senior citizens admittedly have lower levels of literacy than their younger peers. The decreased economic relevance of the elderly can be seen in many companies, where the average age of Chief Executive Officers has fallen from 59 in 1980 to almost 50 years of age today. Many corporations also prefer youths to older workers as youths are seen to be more creative and efficient. The American Association of Retired Persons or AARP recently published a survey, in which 76% of respondents felt that they face greater difficulty in job-hunting due to their age, presumably because they were seen as ‘outdated’ or ‘antiquated’ in their thinking. Whether this view is merited notwithstanding, it is arguably true that the elderly are viewed as increasingly obsolete in the economy of tomorrow.
Yet, while the aforementioned challenges may seem overwhelming, it is essential to recognize that the elderly are not inevitably doomed to be a burden to society. Amidst an increasing elderly population in many countries, it has become ever more urgent and important for countries to tap on the pool of elderly as a demographic group which can bring about greater opportunities and benefits. The elderly need not be a burden to society if sound government policies are devised and implemented to encourage the elderly to become economically productive. The elderly, while less mobile and efficient, still represent a large pool of people who can contribute to the economy. Governments can introduce policies to encourage elderly participation in the workforce by providing monetary incentives, as well as retraining and skills upgrading opportunities. For instance, Singapore has the Workfare Income Supplement scheme, which gives older workers higher take-home pay and increased Central Provident Fund contributions. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices also uses advertisements and schemes to encourage employment of older workers by changing socio-cultural perceptions of the elderly. By encouraging the elderly to become financially independent, less pressure is placed on governments and families to provide support for the elderly. In fact, the elderly can help to supplement the dwindling workforce in many countries by filling in labour gaps such as in the services industry. From the aforementioned, one can evidently see that the elderly can provide many benefits to society if sound governmental policies are put in place to encourage the elderly to become more independent.
Another key aspect of governmental policies which can help alleviate the burden that the elderly put on society is in terms of promoting healthy ageing and encouraging healthier lifestyles. With a healthier elderly population, less will be spent on healthcare costs as there will be fewer illnesses and medical issues in society. Campaigns to encourage healthy dietary practices and regular exercise are useful in shaping a healthy population. Technology, the very tool which has led to the decreased relevance of elderly, should in fact be utilized to help the elderly lead healthier lives. For instance, a group of National Technological University students have devised electronic games that require physical participation from the elderly. These games are already being tested at senior activity centres around the island, and suggest that there is huge potential to encourage the elderly to lead healthier lifestyles. Indeed, if the elderly can be healthy and fit, they will be able to contribute to society much more, rather than be a liability to society. As such, it is certainly not inevitable that the elderly are a burden.
Moreover, the elderly population need not be a burden to society as they can stimulate certain sectors in a country’s economy. The elderly population brings with it a diverse range of needs that has given rise to the “silver industry”. This represents a significant growth sector for economies as businesses can tap on growing demand for geriatric services, medicinal and pharmaceutical services as well as infrastructure and facilities that cater to the needs of the elderly. For instance, in the UK, many households have stair lifts which can help transport older family members up and down flights of stairs. In Japan, buses have been equipped with mobile ramps that cater to elderly on wheelchairs. Singapore has also recently been ranked third out of fifteen Asian-Pacific countries in terms of silver industry market potential, which refers to the potential of a market emerging to serve the unique needs of affluent but aging consumers. All these opportunities represent the many benefits that the elderly can bring to the economy by introducing greater demand for geriatric goods and services. This potential growth sector can lead to economic growth for the society. Clearly, the elderly can also bring about benefits and opportunities, and need not be a burden to society.
In conclusion, it is not inevitable for the elderly to be a burden to society. While the elderly can be a burden in certain aspects, sound government policies can help to alleviate this burden and tap on this demographic group to contribute to society. Moreover, opportunities are created with an increasing elderly population. Essentially, the issue of an aging population is a complex one which will not be easy to tackle, but it is important to remember that all of us will one day grow old, and will also experience lower mobility, slower reactions and health issues. Growing old is part and parcel of life, and even if the elderly are a burden in certain aspects, this burden must be a burden that we are willing to carry.