Webinar on “Demographic Transitions in Southeast Asia: Reframing How We Think and Act about Ageing”

In this webinar, Professor Thanh-Long Giang and Dr Reuben Ng emphasised the importance of reframing perceptions on ageing as a key step in adapting to the demographic changes in Southeast Asia.


Thursday, 25 January 2024 – The world, especially East Asia and Southeast Asia (SEA), is increasingly ageing at a rapid pace. With substantial demographic shifts on the horizon, countries in the region must reframe how they think and act about ageing. To discuss the challenges of demographic transitions in Southeast Asia, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar featuring Professor Thanh-Long Giang from the National Economic University and Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, and Dr Reuben Ng from the National University of Singapore, who drew on country-level experiences and shared findings, insights and policy recommendations on various policy domains, including pension and social insurance systems, health and care industries, ageism and fighting stereotyping, as well as maintaining the well-being of the older population.

Moderator Dr Maria Monica Wihardja with speakers Dr Reuben Ng and Professor Thanh-Long Giang (offscreen). (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Following a brief introduction by Dr Maria Monica Wihardja, Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Prof Long started his presentation by sharing the two key drivers of Vietnam’s fast-ageing population: 1) declining total fertility rate (TFR), and 2) improving life expectancies (LE) for both men and women. He noted that at the provincial level, ageing exhibited uneven patterns, where poorer provinces had higher TFR, lower LE and net migration rates. He dived deeper into the evolving demographic profiles, highlighting Vietnam’s status as one of the fastest-ageing populations globally. In approximately 18 years, the current “ageing” population is projected to become an “aged” population in 2036, with over 14 per cent of the total population being 65 years old or above. In particular, he highlighted the feminisation of ageing, where there would be more female older persons than males. He argued that this should become an important indicator in influencing the design of long-term care strategies in Vietnam.

Key challenges facing Vietnam include the phenomenon of “getting old before getting rich” and the absence of sufficient pension, social insurance, and social assistance for the two “missing middles” namely (1) older persons and (2) workers who are not poor enough to be covered by social assistance but also not rich enough to benefit from the social insurance or social pension systems.  This poses serious issues within the social protection system. Additionally, although overall life expectancy has improved, healthy old ages have remained approximately the same over the years, indicating that health and care issues, especially non-communicable diseases, remain the key challenges to be tackled with differentiated approaches across different segments of the older population, especially those vulnerable older persons with disadvantages.

To conclude, Prof Long emphasised the significance of reframing policy mindsets and responses. It involves viewing the ageing population not merely as a challenge to cope with, but as a phenomenon to adapt to. Addressing the complexities of an ageing population necessitates adopting intra- and inter-generational views, which means recognizing the challenges and opportunities of both current and future older persons, and reframing how we think about older persons from burdens to assets. Policy strategies include creating a multi-tier pension system, implementing people-centred integrated healthcare, which focuses on supporting healthy ageing and treating older people based on their individual capacities, instead of stereotyping older people.

Dr Ng expanded on the topic by delving into the pervasive issue of ageism, the stereotyping portrayal of older people in the media, and its broader implications. He provided a global perspective on the ageing phenomenon, revealing that the challenges associated with an ageing population extended beyond Southeast Asia. Singapore is ranked second in being the fastest ageing country in the world, with disability projected to surge fivefold in the next four decades. Anticipating a substantial demographic shift, he stressed the urgent need for a paradigm shift in how society perceives and addresses the needs of older individuals. He concurred with the importance of reframing older persons as assets rather than burdens to society.

Dr Ng then spoke of how the media was laced with ageism and perpetuated it, such as ads hinting at the frailty of older persons. In news media, there are six times more negative descriptions of older adults compared to positive ones. He traced the historical evolution of language associated with older people using the methodology of analysing associated adjectives, revealing a shift from celebrating longevity to portraying them as symbols of weakness. The rise of age stereotypes, particularly the medicalization of ageing, has contributed to this negative trend, with portrayals often emphasizing illnesses and treatments.

Dr Ng underscored the significant impacts of ageism, both on an individual and societal level. Positive perceptions of ageing are correlated with a survival advantage, with individuals harbouring such views living approximately eight years longer and exhibiting better memory. Conversely, ageism is identified as a contributor to stress, leading to an annual health cost estimate of $63 billion. Dr Ng’s insights highlighted the critical need to alter societal attitudes, challenge age stereotypes, and foster positive perceptions of ageing for the benefit of both individuals and society at large.

To combat ageism and reframe ageing, Dr Ng suggested framing older persons based on their family and occupational roles which highlighted their contribution to society, as this evoked more positive stereotypes, rather than framing them by their age. He also cautioned against well-intentioned policies such as Singapore’s Pioneer Generation Policy, which while aiming to provide care for the older generation, inadvertently contributed to the medicalization of ageing and worsened perceptions. Lastly, Dr Ng concluded by emphasising the importance of language and its role in shaping perceptions of older persons.

The 75-minute webinar was attended by an audience composed of research scholars, students, policymakers and the general public. The speakers also answered their questions on an array of topics, including how developing countries can build sustainable pension systems and build trust amongst its people in that regard, what governments can do to help reframe people’s mindsets about older persons, how the feminisation of ageing impacts society and what policymakers can do to prepare for it, what governments can do to ensure the quality of life of different age groups whilst caring for its older persons, and how the dataset on perceptions of older persons in English media can be extended to other languages, regions and cultures.

Download Professor Thanh-Long Giang’s slides.

Download Dr Reuben Ng slides.