Statement at Intergovernmental meeting for the Review and Appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing

Delivered at Intergovernmental meeting for the Review and Appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing

Distinguished guests,

Welcome to this intergovernmental meeting for the Review and Appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. It is a pleasure to greet you in Bangkok and to begin proceedings with some of my own thoughts. Allow me to briefly set out some of the main challenges posed by an ageing population in Asia and the Pacific; touch upon why a regional approach is needed to adapt; and mention some of the areas to focus on with renewed vigour in our implementation of the Madrid Action Plan.

The demographic change afoot in our region is considerable. Today, the ageing population is just shy of 550 million. By 2050 it is expected to more than double. Over this period, Asia and the Pacific will increase the percentage of its population aged 60 or above from 13 per cent to 25 per cent. Older persons are already the fastest growing population group. In almost all the countries of the region, this group is growing faster than any other. Indeed, in some countries (Japan, Georgia, and the Russian Federation), it is the only age group still growing.

Put simply, the Asia-Pacific region is ageing at unprecedented pace with limited time to adapt. European countries aged when comprehensive social protection systems were well established. In Asia and the Pacific many countries are ageing when these systems are not yet in place. France took 115 years to move from an ‘ageing’ to an ‘aged’ society. In the Republic of Korea the same process is expected to take only 18 years and be complete next year. In other rapidly ageing countries such as China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Viet Nam, the process is expected to take between 20 and 25 years.

Rapid ageing reflects the success of development. Improved family planning, better access to contraception and reduced infant and maternal mortality, have led to a rapid decline in fertility. Improved diets, lifestyles and healthcare have increased life expectancy. In East and North-East Asia between 1965 and 1980, fertility fell from 5.5 to 2.5 live births per woman. Today, fertility is below the replacement rate in 11 countries in the region. Increases in life expectancy are equally striking. Since 1965, life expectancy in China increased from 55 to 76 years of age and in India from 46 to 691.

Our ability to adapt to a rapidly ageing population has a direct bearing on our work to achieve the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals. And because of its many dimensions, our response to population ageing must be mainstreamed across policy areas. Only then can we mitigate its risks. In doing so, we need to sharpen our focus on those who live just above the poverty line and have little capacity to build savings. Let me mention three specific challenges.

First, older women are among those most likely to be left behind – so an ageing population could undermine our efforts to reach Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality. The evidence is that discrimination against women is compounded in old age. Older women are more likely to be poor because they are less likely to have worked, to have built up savings or have a pension. Older women are less able to rely on financial support from their families than older men - particularly women in the lowest income group. Older women are also more likely to be victims of violence, abuse and neglect.

Second, population ageing can increase income inequality because older persons often have no income at all, or lower average incomes than the working-age population. In the Asia-Pacific region, less than one third of the working-age population currently pays into a contributory pension fund. Older persons who work have lower incomes than people in younger ages because they mainly work in the informal sector. Pension systems are currently designed in a way that perpetuates income inequalities rather than address them. Those who are better off in working-age are more likely to have a pension when they are old, while the most vulnerable groups are often left without protection in old age. In the Republic of Korea, 45 per cent of older persons live below the national poverty line and this trend has increased over time.

Third, population ageing can affect the goal of achieving good health for all at all ages. Health systems need to be adjusted to deal with the increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases. Universal access to health care becomes even more important in ageing societies. In many countries, a substantial proportion of healthcare costs are borne by private households. These can cover as much as 60 per cent of all healthcare expenditure – a huge burden for older people with limited income.

Despite these challenges, if adequate policies are adopted, population ageing could lead to a second demographic dividend. To seize this opportunity, innovative solutions and cooperation are required. For example, we need to look how to finance better the long-term care services for the elderly, to deliver the human resources needed for care services for older persons, and at ways to harness technologies to improve older peoples’ lives. Designing sustainable pension systems in an environment with a large informal sector is another challenge.

The Madrid International Plan of Action already provides a comprehensive action plan complementary to the 2030 Agenda. Now, we must intensify its implementation. The plan provides concrete action points on how countries address population ageing and ensure older persons are not left behind. It seeks to make older persons part of the solution to some of the challenges our countries face. It recognises older persons already make a substantial contribution to economies through their work and consumption. They provide unpaid care work - often childcare - which allows younger people to participate in the paid labour force.

But more is needed than recognizing the contribution older persons already make. Well calibrated policies to reverse shrinking working-age populations are important – particularly by integrating women and other groups who are often marginalised - into the labour market. This can be supported by the promotion of re-employment opportunities by public and private employers. We also need to eliminate age barriers in the labour market such as early statutory retirement ages. In policies geared towards supporting SMEs, we need to consider how we can improve access to credit for older persons and promote self-employment initiatives. Efforts need to be stepped up to support continuous learning and reskilling, so that older people have the tools to continue to work longer. Investment and improved education and training of the broader workforce will be critical if we are to increase productivity levels to support a shift in production structures to more technology intensive industries.

All the while, social protection systems need to be built up throughout their life-cycle, with a special focus on increasing the coverage of pension systems for both the formal and informal working population and to make them more sustainable. Contributory pension schemes need to link better retirement age to life expectancy. More regular actuarial evaluations would be beneficial, as would stronger incentives for contributions. There is also a case for expanding non-contributory pensions scheme to provide broad social assistance to cover the older population. And we must encourage savings for those in working age.

I have already mentioned the pressure ageing is likely to put on our healthcare systems. I would add this requires improving our capacity to cope with age-related mental health issues, and to use technology better for the provision of healthcare, but also to monitor the development of non-communicable diseases. Long term care systems, including palliative care, will become increasingly important. This should be supported by using scientific research, data, expertise and technology to focus on the social and health implications of ageing.

Over the coming three days, you will hear from members and associate members on the progress they have made in implementing the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. You will explore innovative practices from the priority areas of the Madrid Plan of Action on Ageing. You will also discuss the importance of regional cooperation and building partnerships. The outcomes of this meeting should help shape our approach and actions on how to intensify the implementation of the Madrid International Plan of Action, but also identify the gaps in our efforts we need to plug. Your work to re-examine the Madrid International Plan of Action through the prism of the 2030 Agenda is vital to strengthen our efforts to support growth, equality and inclusive sustainable development across Asia and the Pacific.

I thank you.

1DESA, World Population Prospects