The burden of age: why Thailand must prepare now for a growing greying society

While Thailand has set the ageing society as a National Agenda item recently, we need action – and a lot of it – rather than just words.

With talks on the charter amendment and Prayut Chan-o-cha’s future dominating government and parliamentary affairs, one important issue has been grossly overlooked: that everyone, no matter what ideology he or she is advocating, is ageing in a society that is poorly prepared for it.

The recent news about Thailand’s birthrate hitting rock bottom has been a wakeup call for discussion on social media. With the current birth rate of less than 600,000 per annum, the country will have to alter its strategy if it is to cope with the demographic change.

Even Elon Musk is concerned, tweeting, “We should be much more worried about population collapse”. He is also urging people to have more babies.

Unfortunately, Thailand is contributing to the world’s insufficient population. The country has been in the ageing society since 2005, meaning 10% of the population is already 60 or older.

It has joined Japan and the other 21 countries that are expected to see a 50% population drop by 2100.  According to research by the University of Washington, if present trends continue, Thailand’s population will shrink from 71 million to 35 million in 80 years.

With or without Musk’s tweets or news reports, the falling birth rate is alarming and needs attention. Obviously, Thailand has been out of sync for quite some time as the birthrate shrinks and older people live longer.

Over the past few years, warning signs have been increasing around the world. The government has been aware but is woefully unprepared. What’s happening now is no different from what Singapore and Japan faced a decade or so back, but the two nations have been more proactive in handling the situation.

Helping old people does not only benefit them. Being preparedfor the ageing society also helps the new generation. Millennials are reported to be experiencing high-pressure lives, and are plagued with low-paid jobs on temporary contracts, rising housing costs and the financial burden of supporting their ageing parents or relatives.

In Spain, for example, young people are reportedly bearing the brunt of rising costs and strained incomes. An inflation-adjusted study shows that, compared to Generation X (those born between 1966 and 1980) when they were aged 30 to 34, millennials of the same age have reportedly 30 percent lower income. It’s more or less the same In England, where the income of English millennials in their 20s and 30s, is barely higher than “Gen X-ers” when they were at the same age.

In Thailand, the rising cost of living makes it difficult for young people and COVID-19 has made the situation worse. That struggle makes it hard for them to stay afloat let alone take care of their ageing parents.

The government has to prepare to take care of the elderly people despite having much less income because there are fewer workers paying taxes than in the past. While it has set the ageing society as a National Agenda item recently, we need action – and a lot of it – rather than just words. We do already have the “Department of Older Persons” under the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security to handle the task. But that is unlikely to be enough as in 2031 we will become a “super-aged” society with around 30% of the population aged 60 or older.

This demographic change will affect the government’s fiscal burden, especially the rising welfare budget. The government’s facilities are not up to the level of coping with the “aged” society like Japan and Singapore and therefore more must be done.  At the same time, Thailand will struggle with fewer workers and taxpayers.

The economic challenges will continue to increase and government must find a way to raise income such as revamping tax structures and increasing the efficacy of tax revenue collection. The country also needs an economic revamp and to rely more on innovative technologies and value-added products and services.

Failure to acquire more income will result in both millennials and the elderly suffering. The country must up its game to generate wealth to fund social support and healthcare before we become a super “aged” nation.

An oft-quoted saying is “we must get rich before we age, not age before we get rich” and that certainly applies here. It is vital that Thailand takes notice and strives to sustain economic growth in the long run to feed dependent populations.

By Veena Thoopkrajae

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