Diverse Asia: the
Retirement is often seen through the lens of developed markets, where relatively more robust Social Security, healthcare, and defined contribution systems exist. Asia, however, offers compelling lessons (for within Asia) in what the future of retirement looks like as the region’s markets currently offer differing levels of retirement protection, and with varying demographic profiles, they’re looking at policy innovations to prepare for the future. The main objective of the Diverse Asia series is to show how the selected markets of Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan are forging their own path to meet the challenges and to offer new opportunities for their populations. We hope to show how the diversity of Asia, as well as the diversity of populations served, provides a potential template for others to learn and study.
In the first of a series of articles, Manulife Investment Management explores the retirement readiness of different populations in the Asia-Pacific region while considering the issues and responses from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan. The content has been developed with insight and research from the Sau Po Centre on Ageing at the University of Hong Kong1.
Our intention is to take a deep dive into Asia’s retirement readiness in a contextualised way and explore the subject through both a quantitative and qualitative lens.
For the purposes of this series, we focused our research on Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan, as these represent a truly diverse Asia due to differences in demographic stages. They all have young, ageing, and aged populations, and their respective governments and industries have started introducing their own solutions to their respective demographic and healthcare challenges.
With Asia home to a diverse set of countries with young, ageing, and aged populations, our findings demonstrate that there truly is no one-size-fits-all approach for Asian retirees to consider. We analyse socioeconomic factors such as ageing, gender, and family structures as key to the retirement conversation. What works for Hong Kong’s population may not work as well for the people in Malaysia. But diversity is a strength, and when it comes to solving the retirement readiness puzzle, countries within Asia have much to learn from each other.
We believe the best way to cater to the retirement needs of various diverse groups is to offer various perspectives, trigger new thoughts, and empower individuals with the literacy and digital tools to make informed decisions and become financially better off in the long term. This series has been created because we want to encourage more open and direct discussions around these issues, because none of us can afford for these factors to be ignored.
At Manulife Investment Management, our presence within these markets gives us a unique investment footprint. It allows us to serve different populations and presents us with the opportunity to tell their story and to show a side of Asia that those without local presence can’t see. We’re therefore pleased to present our findings and to tell the unique story of each of these markets. We believe that the insight we’ve gathered can also be used to benefit the rest of Asia.
The world’s ageing population is a well-known concern. Demographic shifts are being guided by a declining birth rate, shrinking households, rising healthcare costs, and fragmentation among traditional family structures.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), by 2030, one in every six people in the world will be aged 60 years or over. But beneath that underlying fact, different populations are ageing at different rates, and nowhere is this variation more visible than within Asia. According to the Asian Development Bank, by 2030, one out of four people in Asia will be over 60; however, some Southeast Asia countries such as Laos and Cambodia have some of the youngest populations in the world, with populations aged 65+ at merely 5.5% and 4.4%, respectively. This only underlines the point that Asia is a hugely diverse region, characterised by different markets at varying stages of economic and demographic development.
Take Hong Kong as an example: Hong Kong is an aged population, with 19.1% of its population over 65; moreover, 24.5% of Hong Kong adults are aged between 50 and 64. This makes the median age of the total Hong Kong population 44.9 years old, the second highest in Asia. Markets such as Japan are now considered super-aged, with 28.7% of the population above 65 years old. At the other end of the spectrum is Indonesia, considered to be much younger, with just 6.3% of its population aged 65+. But Indonesia has its own demographic challenges and has suffered a dramatic decline in its old-age support ratio—the number of people aged 15 to 64 per one older person aged 65+, which is estimated to drop from 13.8 in 2000 to 4.1 in 2050—ever since the Indonesia government took steps to control overpopulation in the 1970s.
In short, just as with many countries in the West, broadly speaking, Asia must address the dual challenge of more elderly people in retirement and fewer younger people able to care for them. But despite this challenging backdrop, there are positive developments across different countries to highlight.
These come both in the form of government policy initiatives and from individuals who are willing to take their retirement planning firmly into their own hands and consider all the available investment options. Solutions are there in the form of varying degrees of state support, open-market options for pensions and retirement-focused investments, and family structures. The degree of diversity within the concept of ageing presents fertile ground for exploring and testing solutions, given Asia is less locked into legacy pension systems compared with developed regions. Moreover, a broad range of demographic, economic, and social contexts is injecting several dynamics into Asia’s retirement landscape. As a result, Asia’s retirement landscape remains both hopeful and notably more positive when compared with Europe and the United States.
To consider the complexities of Asia’s demographic challenges, as well as the responses to those challenges, it’s important to start with some clear definitions of what ageing means on a region-by-region basis. Our definitions are as follows, with references to the United Nations and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) :
• Young—Regions in which less than 7% of the population is aged 65+
• Ageing—Regions in which more than 7% to less than 14% of the population is aged 65+
• Aged—Regions in which more than 14% to less than 20% of the population is aged 65+
• Super-aged—Regions in which more than 20% of the population is aged 65+
According to these definitions, only a handful of Asia populations is in the young category, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Cambodia; Mainland China and Malaysia are in the ageing category; and Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan alike are in the aged category.
It’s important to note that besides measuring just age, we’re also adopting a portfolio concept — aggregating a range of demographic statistics holistically — in defining whether a society is aged. To understand the impact of ageing on social and economic development in a specific demographic context, a portfolio concept can provide us with a different lens that could yield organic views.
Source: “World Population Prospects 2022, Online Edition,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2022. Life expectancy and old-age dependency ratio/support ratio data is from “World Population Prospects 2022, Online Edition,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2022; health-adjusted life expectancy data for regions other than Hong Kong and Taiwan is from “Healthy life expectancy (HALE) Data by Market,” World Health Organization, 2020; healthy life expectancy data for Hong Kong is adapted from “Are We Living Longer and Healthier?” Journal of Aging and Health, 2020; and data for Taiwan is adapted from “Mortality, morbidity, and risk factors in Taiwan, 1990–2017: Findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017,” Journal of the Formosan Medical Association, 2021.
Moreover, for many Asian markets, the speed of the transition from an ageing to an aged society is increasing. According to the Asia Health and Wellbeing Initiative, East and Southeast Asia alone are expected to have 572.5 million seniors aged 65+ by 2050, which is more than double today’s number. We believe the unique challenge for Asia is the pace of this transition, which is occurring at a rate 3x to 4x faster than any other market.
We can also consider the future trajectory of population ageing in each Asia market, which can be indicated by the number of years it takes for the population to switch from ageing to aged. Based on current information, we therefore estimate Asia will become aged in less than 20 years (by 2040) and super-aged in less than 40 years’ time (by 2060).
In our view, a sustainable world in the context of ageing would therefore depend on a sustainable Asia. By 2050, the elderly population in Asia will account for 63% of the world’s aged population and will have its own ageing features as already discussed (diversified ageing speed, heterogeneous demographic stages); therefore, Asia must develop its own retirement strategies from both a public (government) and private (industry) market point of view. In other words, there is no model to follow: Asia must develop its own.
The data highlights the size of the demographic challenge each Asian market faces, but there are opportunities as well as risks. Crucially, there is no single magic bullet that governments can fire. The sheer diversity within Asia means each market must meet its demographic issues with a highly specific methodology. That said, Asian markets with less comprehensive state schemes may also have greater room for innovation and fewer legacy costs when compared with the West. Asian markets can also learn a great deal from the different routes being explored within the region, as we explain in the next section, which focuses on the responses—both from the government and from individuals—currently under way in the subregions of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Total fertility rate per woman
Sources: Hong Kong: “Total fertility rate” by Census and Statistic Department, HKSAR, 2022; Taiwan: Department of Household Registration Affairs, Taiwan, 2022; Malaysia: Department of Statistics, Malaysia, 2022, data as of 2020; Indonesia: “Fertility rate, total (births per woman) - Indonesia” by World Bank Open Data, data as of 2020. Data are rounded to two decimal places.
As more people across Asia leave the workforce and enter their retirement years, the financial burden on governments is increasing. Many markets are trying to establish a workable government/state-funded support or welfare regime that alleviates some of that burden from the state by applying a blended approach that encompasses the role of state, market, and family in welfare provision and a social welfare system that covers multiple domains, including social pension, healthcare (primary and acute care), and public housing.
In Hong Kong, for example, the social welfare system features a mixed model and holds a market-oriented view that welfare services are there to assist people and families in need, while many domains in welfare and Social Security are heavily subsidised by the government. While the welfare systems of developing markets are still very much under development compared with Western equivalents, efforts are being made toward a more comprehensive approach to welfare, including universal healthcare.
Source: Legco, 2018; MPFSA, 2022. Social pension, child and family support data compiled from “Statistics on social protection” by ILOSTAT, 2022 (https://ilo/org/topics/social-protection/) ; Health care data for regions other than Taiwan are compiled form “Universal Health Care Service Coverage Index”, WHO, 2022; Health care data for Taiwan is adapted from “Universal Health Coverage: Taiwan International Nursing Conference 2020” by Ministry of Health and Welfare, 2020; Housing data for Hong Kong is adapted from “Population by Census 2016” by Census and Statistic Department, 2016; Housing data for Taiwan is adapted from “Public Housing Policy in Taiwan” by Chang & Yuan, 2013, The Future of Public Housing: Ongoing Trends in the East and the West, p.86; Housing data for Malaysia is adapted from “KPKT statistics 2020” by Ministry of Housing and Local Government, 2020; Housing data for Indonesia is adapted from ”Indonesia-A Roadmap for Housing Policy Reform” by Kementerian PPN/Bappenas, 2015, p.116.
Asia’s retirement landscape remains very different from Europe and the United States. Pressures certainly exist, but people are becoming increasingly financially aware and are keen to learn, adapt, and prepare themselves. Governments also recognise the issues facing them and are exploring different ways to meet the challenge. Some economies, such as Brunei, have raised the retirement age, Indonesia has increased Social Security contributions, and Thailand and Vietnam have both enhanced non-contributory pensions. While clearly more can—and must—be done in terms of policy initiatives, we expect these will follow.
As noted, the pandemic and its aftermath should spur governments within Asia to continue to improve their respective healthcare provisions, and we’re already seeing some exciting healthcare innovations and new treatments. If the goal of society is to improve the quality of life for all of its citizens, then the current outlook deserves to be viewed with a sense of optimism.
From a financial perspective, an ageing population will continue to present unique opportunities within certain industries; in particular, the rise in the retiring population should drive the demand for wealth management services. Greater financial education for this cohort of the population should only accelerate that demand, helping to create a populate that feels financially empowered and in charge of their own financial future. But people can’t solve this problem alone: Government policy has an increasingly important role to play. Affordable and accessible healthcare is one important aspect; another involves pension reform and introducing meaningful incentives to save for retirement. In this respect, markets within Asia can learn a great deal from one another. Asia’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths, and through this diversity lies the path to overcoming its demographic challenges.
In our next article, we’ll take a deeper look at the retirement readiness of Asia, highlight the factors behind the gender pension differences, and explore how this income gap can be bridged.
We would like to express our thanks to Dr. C.H.Peng, Department of Social Work and Social Administration, the University of Hong Kong, who contributed feedback to the manuscript.
1 Manulife Investment Management engages the Sau Po Centre on Ageing at the University of Hong Kong (“HKU”) in the capacity of consultant (consultancy fee incurred) to perform the consultancy services for the Diverse Asia thought leadership series.
2 Hong Kong: Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health, data captured since the outbreak of the fifth wave (provisional data), as of 15 August 2022; Taiwan: Taiwan Centers for Disease Control, as of 15 August 2022. Malaysia: The official Malaysia government website for data and insights on COVID-19, cumulative death since the outbreak of COVID-19 from 2020 (number of death cases in the past 24 weeks, age group 60+), as of 15 August 2022; Indonesia: World Health Organization, cumulative death since the outbreak of COVID-19 from 2020as of 15 August 2022.