New report reveals how population trends are affecting Asia's development

Posted: 6 August 2002

Rebellious teenagers, polluted mega-cities, changing family values, an expanding HIV/AIDS epidemic, growing numbers of elderly and fluctuating economic growth. These are just a few of the trends in Asia today that are linked to dramatic changes in the size and structure of the region's population.

Asia's economic transformation since World War II, plus breakthroughs in health and family-planning technology, resulted in an unprecedented pace of population change. And population change is a key story behind many of today's news stories from the region.report coverThe Future of Population in Asia was written by researchers and staff of the East-West Center's Population and Health program based on their work of recent years. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the book examines how future population trends will have a critical impact on Asia's economic, environmental and social development. Each chapter includes recommendations and policy implications.

Over the past 50 years, death rates in Asia were the first to fall, while birth rates remained high. As a result, population growth speeded up to alarming levels, and many observers foresaw mass starvation and an environmental disaster. Then birth rates also began to drop. With longer life expectancy and fewer births, concern has shifted to the implications of a shrinking workforce and burgeoning elderly population, particularly in Asia's most economically advanced countries.

Although fertility is declining, Asia's population is projected to grow by nearly one-half before the numbers stabilize - from 3.5 billion in 2000 to 5 billion in 2050. And the fastest-growing age group in most Asian countries will be the elderly. Social and demographic changes will pose difficult problems for policymakers affecting marriage and family life, the role of women, youth, the risk of HIV/AIDS, the environment and economic development.

Some of the findings discussed in the book:

  • Large working-age populations contributed to the "economic miracle" in several East Asian countries. Other Asian countries are slated to benefit from this "demographic bonus" in the future, but conditions in the East-Asian economies that grew rapidly in the past will not be as favorable.

  • A temporary rise in the number of adolescents and young adults, based on high fertility 10 to 20 years ago, is a key factor behind Asia's "youth culture," with rising rates of smoking, drinking and high-risk sex.

  • With Asia's unprecedented fertility decline, large numbers of elderly will have few children to support them. In some countries, population aging is occurring so quickly that governments have little time - and few resources - to set up the necessary health care and social security systems.

  • Signs are growing that India and China will face major HIV/AIDS epidemics in the next few years. Thailand and Cambodia have reversed the spread of HIV/AIDS through focused prevention and broad-based social involvement. Will Asia's two largest countries, with huge rural populations and limited infrastructure and resources, be able to contain the epidemic?

  • In nearly every Asian country, women are living longer and are more likely to attend school or work outside the home than in the past. Yet in Asia's patriarchal societies, many signs of women's low status persist.

  • Primarily as a result of rural-to-urban migration, Asia is the fastest urbanizing region in the world, and Asian cities are among the world's most polluted.

  • At the same time, population growth in Asia's rural areas is contributing to pressure on land, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, water scarcity and pollution.

Related links:

The Future of Population in Asia (PDF version)

The East-West Center