Thailand has become a “super-aged” society by 2031, when 28% of the population will be 60 or older. (Photo: Patipat Janthong)
Thailand has become an elderly society and will become a “super-aged” society by 2031 when 28% of the population will be 60 or older. The country has had a low birth rate for several decades, but it was only last year that more deaths than births were recorded. In 2021, deaths outnumbered births at 563,650 compared to 544,570.
Experts are alarmed by the low birth rate and have suggested the government needs policy to promote higher fertility, but many people are unagitated. While unemployment for new graduates is set to rise in the Covid-battered economy, some say it’s probably better that way.
“It’s a good trend, isn’t it? People are struggling to earn a living and unemployed people are everywhere,” said a Bangkok resident when asked about the low birth rate.
Experts’ warning of a shrinking labor force and rising number of retirees over the next 10 years due to below-replacement fertility isn’t nearly as dire as the bills due to the end of the month.
“The low birth rate, the society is full of retirees. Where are we going to find the young people to run the economy? Well, we can rely on it in the future,” said another resident of Bangkok. .
However, demographers and economists stress that the issue should not be framed as a concern for the future and insist that policymakers must start planning now to reverse the tide or the country could find itself in trouble. .
Accelerating the aging trend
Pramote Prasartkul, professor of demography at Mahidol University’s Institute of Demographic and Social Research, said the current demographic situation contrasts sharply with that of 1963-1983, when around 1 million babies were born each year.
“We call it a demographic ‘tsunami.’ he declares.
After noting a birth rate of 3.5% per year, considered “very high” and having prompted a warning from the World Bank, the former government reviewed its fertility policy to slow population growth.
The family planning campaign proved successful and after 1984 the birth rate began to decline, he said.
People’s attitudes and lifestyles also changed and are thought to have contributed to the low birth rate. The higher cost of raising children is also said to have caused some couples to abandon their plans to start a family.
In 2019, the number of newborns fell below 600,000 for the first time and fell to 580,000 in 2020. Last year the number fell further to 544,570, but the Covid-19 pandemic could also have played a role because people have health problems.
Professor Pramote said the low birth rate is a key factor pushing the country into an aging society sooner than expected. Thailand entered aging society status last year, when the elderly made up 20% of the population.
Thailand’s TFR was 5.1 and has since fallen to 1.2, which is below replacement level fertility. TFR is the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime.
He said most people may not understand how the low birth rate will affect the country, but said it is felt in terms of long-term planning for national development and even business planning. .
“Crèches, schools and universities will be affected and there will be a reduction in the workforce in the agricultural and industrial sectors.
“Investments in public infrastructure projects designed to meet the needs of large numbers will become a waste. More importantly, we are wasting human resources,” he said.
The impacts will be felt in the manufacturing sector, although some argue that the technologies can be expected to fill some gaps, Prof Pramote said. Innovations and creativity come from human resources, so society also stands to lose.
Several countries, such as Germany and Japan, are facing labor shortages and have had to recruit skilled foreign workers. This shows that the demand for human labor remains despite the growing role of technology, he said.
Professor Pramote said the low birth rate is a signal that the government needs to take initiatives to increase the fertility rate and change public perceptions about reproduction and child rearing.
“Changing people’s attitude is a must, to help them see the value of having children,” he said.
Clear policies should be introduced to encourage couples to have children, such as a subsidy for prenatal care and childbirth and child support, he said.
The government must also invest in quality education, he said, adding that the current free education policy is inadequate and more action is needed.
New opening for businesses
Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu, research director at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), said an aging society creates opportunities for the development of goods and services to meet the demands of older people.
“Thailand entered an aging society earlier than most Asean countries, so it should seize the opportunity to develop new goods and services,” she said.
Over the next 10 years, the number of older people in ASEAN and China will increase; Asean’s elderly population will reach 70 million while it will reach 200 million in China, she said.
Goods and services for the elderly include medical tourism, medical products for the elderly, babysitting services, and furniture and equipment, including technology for the elderly.
She said the government will need to promote start-ups to develop goods and services for this market and revise regulations that prevent highly skilled workers from working in SMEs.
Flexible rules are needed to encourage new businesses that meet the needs of older people. If the economic growth rate is low, the government will not be able to meet the public welfare expectations.
In an aging society, labor productivity will fall, although robots and automation can help close the gap.
The government should support SMEs and farmers in the use of robots and automation by providing subsidies for training and offering tax incentives or soft loans.
Birth rate recovery policy
Warunee Sitthirungsan, a 39-year-old office worker, wants to have children but now fears she left it too late.
“I wanted a baby at the start of the marriage, but now I’m too old to have one. The most important thing is my financial situation,” she said.
Economic concerns are the main factor guiding a middle-income couple’s decision to have a baby.
The total fertility rate (ISF) among Thai women is 1.24, compared to 2 in the past. Meanwhile, the ratio of working people to old people was 6.1:1 in 2008, 3.4:1 in 2021 and 1.7:1 in 2040.
The lower TFR in Thailand is similar to that of many countries in Asia, including South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore, where the fertility rate is low.
State agencies are now working together on ways to increase the fertility rate, with more details to be released around Valentine’s Day.
Dr. Bunyarit Sukrat, director of the Bureau of Reproductive Health, said the Ministry of Public Health had drawn up a plan to encourage young couples to have children.
The plan includes a program to cut spending on newborns, an increase in childcare centers to help working parents and help for parents struggling to have children.
It further supports the government’s population policy by encouraging married couples to have at least two children.
The ministry found that couples were struggling to access infertility treatments. There are 104 clinics and hospitals treating infertility throughout the country, mainly in the capital. He said the ministry also plans to change a law to make it easier for families to adopt and have their own children.
“The question is difficult. But society has softened with same-sex marriages,” Dr Bunyarit said. “If the law is more relaxed, they could have their own children.”
“Anyway, a thorough discussion is needed as it is a sensitive issue for couples and children,” he added.