South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Paul Yip and Stuart Basten
Paul Yip and Stuart Basten say our definition of old age, now set at 65, should change as our life expectancies increase and general health improves, to better reflect our dependency ratio
Like other places in East Asia, Hong Kong’s low fertility rates and improved life expectancy mean it is facing the challenges of a rapidly ageing society. From 2018, its working-age population is forecast to start to decline despite an increase in total population.
Demographers base such claims on what’s known as the old-age dependency ratio, a measurement that compares the number of people aged 65 and above with those of working age – usually between 20 and 64. In Hong Kong’s case, in 1970, for every 100 people aged 20-64, there were just 8.2 aged 65 and over. That figure is currently around 18.7.
This is the second-highest in Asia, after Japan. According to the latest UN forecasts, this is set to double by 2025 to 36.7, rising to 67 by mid-century – and these are under quite optimistic forecasts of an increase in birth rates, which is by no means guaranteed. Faced with these numbers, it is no surprise that population ageing is a frightening prospect for policymakers and business leaders in Hong Kong.
We should be more critical in the use of the old-age dependency ratio and think about how valid it really is. Firstly, it counts everyone aged 20-64 as part of the “labour force”. Of course this is not the case, with many of those in this age group not being in full-time paid employment for a whole variety of reasons. At the same time, it assumes that everyone over the age of 65 is not in the labour force. But figures from the International Labour Organisation tell us that at least 10 per cent of men in Hong Kong are still actively engaged in paid employment.
The assumption that we become dependent at the age of 65 may have been a reasonable one to make in early 20th-century Europe, where industrialisation had taken root. At the time, many were indeed suffering ill health at 65 and life expectancy was much lower. Thus, they became “pensioners”, dependent on financial and welfare support from the state and their former employers.
Now let us compare this situation with Hong Kong in the 21st century. Of course, the nature of our Mandatory Provident Fund system is different from Europe’s pay-as-you-go pension system, and we have lower levels of support for the elderly.
But we should ask a fundamental question: Can citizens really be called “old” and “dependent” once they turn 65? The evidence suggests that this man-made boundary for old age may not be suitable for use in the future.
Being aged 65 in 1950 was a completely different experience to being aged 65 today – and probably being 65 in the future. In 1950, a Hong Kong man who lived to 65 might expect to live for a further 10.4 years. Today, he would expect to live for another 17.2 years. Further, the period between aged 65 and death is not only longer, it is also characterised by more years in reasonable health.
The implications of this are significant. Rather than defining “old age” as a fixed point based on the number of years we have lived, we should recognise the tremendous changes in life expectancy and health over the past 50 years and switch instead to fixing “dependency” at a point where our remaining life expectancy remains the same.
Some demographers have suggested that it is in the last 15 years of life that our health deteriorates the most rapidly, so perhaps this could be a better indicator of “old age”. Thus, based on the average life expectancies for men and women in 2011, it could be more appropriate to say that men become “old” at 70.4 years and women at 75.6.
By 2041, this “boundary” is projected to rise to 73.2 for men and 78.6 for women. If we recalculate our old-age dependency ratio projection for 2041 based on this definition of “old” and “dependent”, the figure falls dramatically from 61 to around 23.
To be crystal clear, we are not for a moment suggesting that the retirement age should be set at 70 or 75. Instead, the point of presenting this reflection on the measurement of old age is to propose a new and different way of thinking about ageing in Hong Kong.
Currently, population ageing is creating a kind of moral and economic panic across East Asia. Part of this is because we are still using early 20th-century measurements from Europe which “write off” people aged over 65. This is plain wrong. The Hong Kong government’s commitment to an “active ageing” agenda – supported by the Elderly Commission – is a key step in ensuring our “older” citizens remain healthy and active members of society. By breaking down artificial barriers of “old age”, we can develop a more rational discussion about the implications of population ageing in Hong Kong.
We must enable all our citizens to stay active, healthy and happy for as long as possible, and to recognise the hugely significant role which the older population plays in the social, cultural and economic fabric of Hong Kong. At the same time, we must also redouble our efforts to make sure that the contributions made over a lifetime are properly recognised by both the government and the rest of the population, not least by ensuring adequate care and support for those who need it most.
The relatively healthier older adults can be a resource for society, and they can participate in community-based activities to help other older adults. We must try to think out of the box to make our community a home for all.
Paul Yip is a professor in social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong. Stuart Basten is an associate professor in social policy at the University of Oxford