Silver Economy; a demographic dividend? | Sunday Observer

Silver Economy; a demographic dividend?

Addressing one of the major issues that the UK faces, Prime Minister Theresa May has shown interest in appointing a dedicated minister for adult loneliness, foreign media reported some months ago. The incident took place far away from the little Indian Ocean island, yet it has a very strong connection with it.

The population aging process is real and impacts every market and industry. Sri Lanka is aging. This might not be the first time you hear the fact. The level of aging and demographical changes in the Sri Lankans as well as future opportunities were thoroughly discussed by Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo, veteran demographer Prof Lakshman Dissanayake at an exclusive discussion with the Sunday Observer, based on his own researches.

Prof. Dissanayake who had been involved in various research in the field of population studies has come up with a ‘population carrying capacity’ for Sri Lanka. According to his calculations the country’s carrying capacity is 25 million.

“It is true there is a population growth and increase in fertility. But, it will come down, though not now. It will come down. Sri Lanka’s population will remain at 25 million after 2050” he said.

2037 beginning of a new era?

A strong labour force is nothing but a blessing to a country. When the workforce is substantial, the Gross Domestic Production of the country goes up unavoidably. Currently, Sri Lanka enjoys a labour force around 13 million, which is a privilege situation and one of the top driving forces of the country. Until 2037 the country will enjoy this benefit.

However, year 2037 is significant as the elderly population is increasing at an exponential rate of 103 per cent. In 2012, the over 60 year population was 2.5 million, which would be increased up to 5.1 million by 2037. In 2012 the elderly population just took a share of 12.4 per cent of the entire population, whereas it will seize a 22.1 per cent of the total population by 2037. In other words, one out of every five would belong to the elder category. A crucial issue we have to understand is the nature of the next elderly. In the sense, the next elderly will be none but the current labour force.

The more we invest in the current labour force, the more it would benefit the country, when they move into the non-labour, so called- dependent category. As the current labour force grabs a large slice of the population, it is inevitable to create a large percentage of aged dependent portion after 2037.

Hence, Prof. Dissanayake stresses the importance of empowering the current labour force in a bid to avoid future crisis. “By doing that, more importantly we must pay attention on Health. Healthier lifestyles would increase productivity. Also, we must encourage the current labour force to be more savings and investment oriented” the Professor said.

Japan is one of the best examples that Sri Lanka could emulate. Identifying the same nature of demographical changes Japan took precautions to avoid a social breakdown. They started insurance schemes and developed an elder and disable friendly environment (especially, the disabled gaining access to public places and transport modes). Insurance schemes for all could be a good initiative for Sri Lankans. But, it has to be started today, not tomorrow, Prof Dissanayake elaborated.

Improving survival chances

In the middle of the last century, life expectancy in the whole world was just about 50 or 60. Today, it has risen to the 80s with the availability of the latest medicines and treatments.

It has thus created a requirement to uplift the retirement age of the workforce. In Sri Lanka, 60 is considered the normal retirement age. However, Prof. Dissanayake talks of setting up the retirement level at 70 plus. “On the one hand they are well experienced people. If they are physically and mentally fit to work why do we send them home without availing of their services to the country. In reality, the private sector is successfully obtaining their services after retirement. They attract senior experts for the betterment of their companies” the professor said.

However, when a discussion of this nature props up, it is relevant to ask, “If the elderly continue to work and hold their positions, how could the youth find opportunities?”

Prof Dissanayake explained how it does not raise a serious question on demographic grounds. “According to our calculations there won’t be enough labour force to fulfil the future demands”. The Silver Economy is dedicated to the elderly in our society. These demographical changes in a population can be quite challenging. But it is always good to recognise the silver line. In this future crisis of less workforce and more elderly population, the business community and society as a whole would better grab it as an era full of opportunities.

“Accommodation, Transport, Communication, Food, Tourism, Online courses where they can teach sewing, meditation, exercise, e-health services, Robots, the care industry are expected to be the fields with many opportunities. But neither the government nor the private sector has identified these so far”

Year 2037 is just nineteen years away. Policy decisions have to be taken now. In order to form a well institutionalised care industry governed by a code of ethics, policy decisions should be taken today.

It is also important to understand the behavioural nature of the future elderly. It would be legitimate to believe that a major portion of the elderly would not move out of their homes. Therefore, home help systems must be introduced to those who do not like to move away from their homes.

Prof Dissanayake brings up a relatively new concept of establishing a separate workforce for the care industry. “Look at the midwives in the maternal and child care system. I am suggesting to create a similar workforce for elderly care, so they can regularly visit senior citizens in their homes, check their blood pressure and provide other basic health care needs” said the Professor.

Currently, the silver hair market in Europe has exceeded 3.7 trillion Euros. In another nineteen years’ Sri Lanka would be the same. The majority of our local market will comprise the 65+. Hence, their likes, dislikes, spending patterns and so on would matter in the business world.

Future elders and technology

Unlike the present elderly the future elderly would be more tech and computer savvy. The current middle aged are heavily involved with computers and embrace technology. Therefore, computer programs and mobile apps which are easing the day to day activities of the elderly would be a key demand. “Even with the current elderly, the use of technology is not too bad in Sri Lanka. Hence, technology could play a key role in the future, especially, Robotics.

Senior citizens who have no companions in life, no children at home, will be left alone with robots. Japan and other western countries are already experiencing this. They have built dedicated robots for elders, so that they can be rid of the loneliness to some extent” thus he explained our future market needs and technology.

Going beyond robots, he pointed out the importance of using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning technologies. As projected, there would be a less number of workers in the care industry and to fill the shortage, AI and Machine Learning would be a must in the future.

“We are going to age, whether we like it or not. We need to understand the fact and prepare to face it with a positive mind. Not just the Government, but private sector involvement is key in this” said Prof Dissanayake.