Asia has witnessed the most rapid demographic change in the world. And Asia’s 50 countries and territories, and its population of around 4.3 billion accounts for 60 per cent of the world total.
In the 1950s, the Asian population as a whole was still in the early stages of demographic transition; fertility and mortality were both higher than the world average, with a total fertility rate of 5.8 children per woman and a life expectancy of 43 years. The total fertility rate has fallen to 2.2 children per woman and life expectancy has reached 70 years.
Great demographic diversity still exists. Asian populations have experienced remarkable demographic changes, but the process, magnitude and consequence of these changes have varied significantly. When examined by region, East Asia has led the change over the past six decades — the lowest fertility and mortality rates in the world have been recorded in some East Asian populations in recent years. Southeast Asia is now slightly behind East Asia; the region’s total fertility rate has fallen from 6.1 to 2.1 children per woman and life expectancy has risen from 42 to 71 years.
In contrast, fertility and mortality changes have been much smaller in the five Central Asian countries. Their total fertility rate has declined from 4.6 to 2.5 children per woman and life expectancy has increased by only 13 years (from 55 to 68 years). Demographic changes in West and South Asia have been far more notable than those in Central Asia but have been less dramatic in comparison with East and Southeast Asia.
Marked variations in fertility and mortality have helped to form different age structures and other demographic characteristics in these populations, which have had very different impacts on Asia’s recent socioeconomic development. For the same reason, these countries and areas will also face very different demographic challenges in the near future. On the basis of these considerations and their current fertility and mortality levels, Asian populations can be divided broadly into three major groups, although there are some exceptions.
The first group consists of most East Asian populations and several countries in other parts of Asia. These populations completed their demographic transition some time ago. Their recent and current fertility levels are lower or much lower than 1.8 children per woman, and life expectancy tends to be higher than 74 years. Their recent population changes have opened the ‘demographic window’ to economic development, and most of these countries have experienced rapid economic growth in recent decades. Because of their very low fertility rates and remarkable reductions in mortality, these countries have witnessed and will continue to witness rapid ageing. Many of them have experienced or will soon experience a notable decline in the working-age population, or even a decline in the national population. The conventionally defined old-age dependency ratio will further increase in most of these countries. If their far-below-replacement fertility levels are not reversed soon, the age structure of these populations will become even more top-heavy or biased towards old people.
The second group of countries, which is spread right across Asia and includes countries such as Turkey, Indonesia and Oman, has largely completed its demographic transition, but fertility levels are either slightly higher than replacement or have only reached this level recently. Their life expectancy is generally within the range of 70 to 75 years. Largely for this reason, the proportion of old people is still growing relatively slowly in these countries. Most of these populations will have low or declining dependency ratios over the next few decades, which, together with favourable development policies and adequate investment, could bring about the kind of rapid economic growth that we have seen in many group-one countries. Creating enough jobs will be a major challenge over the next 20–30 years.
The third group of countries is largely from South, Southeast and West Asia. Most of these countries are still in the late stages of demographic transition. Their fertility rates are still notably higher than replacement level and life expectancy is generally lower — in some cases much lower — than 70 years. Rapid population growth will continue to be a major challenge for them, and some will see their current population more than double by the middle of the century. This will lead to increased population density, a high dependency ratio and strong demand for employment — and these factors will put great pressure on socioeconomic development. In some of the group-two and group-three countries, the high population density, increasing demand for jobs and low standards of living will also produce a strong ‘push’ which could lead to increased international migration.
In the next 20–30 years, fertility and mortality changes are likely to be relatively slow and steady in most Asian populations, although they may decline rapidly in some group-three countries. This is because after falling to a low level, mortality rates are very unlikely to bounce back dramatically unless the country is struck by catastrophic infectious disease, natural disaster or war. Similarly, in low-fertility populations, small fluctuations or a moderate increase in fertility may take place, but a drastic surge or reduction in fertility seems unlikely in the near future.
The certainty about Asia’s future demographic changes also stems from the impact of population momentum. Because of this, a number of major demographic trends in Asia have already been determined by the size and structure of the current population. While unexpected events or radical interventions can still alter Asia’s demographic future, the demographic backdrop has been largely set up for the next 20–30 years. The socioeconomic impact and policy implications of this backdrop need to be considered carefully in planning for the future.
Zhongwei Zhao is a professor at the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, College of Arts and Social Sciences, the Australian National University. The article is published in the latest East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Demographic transition’, released yesterday.