Asian countries’ dramatic growth in recent decades has been fueled in part by a surplus of youthful labor. But as they have grown wealthier, many nations have pursued policies promoting lower birth rates and longer life expectancies, leading to a rapidly aging workforce.
For a closer look at how communities are preparing for their aging populations, Khon Kaen, northern Thailand, is a good example of a place where the elderly are increasingly left behind as young people seek jobs in the cities.
Working-age people in Thailand’s farming-oriented north and northeast traditionally moved to urban centers to earn money during dry season.
But in recent years, the growing demand for factory workers has made this a permanent migration. And as the young people seek bigger paychecks in cities, the elderly and children are left behind in the villages.
Khon Kaen University Professor Dusadee Ayuwat has been studying migration in the northeast for more than 20 years.
"Most of them are younger labor age, 15 years," she said. "After they finish secondary school they would like to work outside [their village] and they can work until they are 40."
Now, farms that traditionally relied on human labor are turning to machines to plant and harvest crops. The mechanized farms mean fewer job opportunities for older people.
The problem is similar in China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, where aging populations are growing faster than those in western countries.
Thailand expects its number of old people to double in 20 years because of birth rate control policies. The provinces in Thailand's north and northeast will age even more rapidly than the rest of the country, says Sopon Thangphet, an analyst who studied the trend for the International Labor Organization.
"We have a very short time to prepare ourselves ...in terms of welfare provision for this population group," he said.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says there is more to be done to help the elderly. He says his government will support initiatives of local authorities to run their own welfare system.
One old couple lives with two children in Khon Kaen. They both get 500 baht or about $18 monthly allowance from the government. Their two children who work in the nearby city provide some money for food, but it is not enough. The parents still must work to meet their needs.
He says 400 baht or $13 of his monthly government allowance goes to insurance. He says they have to work to come up with at least 100 baht or three dollars every day.
"They want to work because they don't want to be a burden also, and they want to remain to be valued by their community or family, " said Sopon Thangphet of Chiang Mai University.
One of the men says he has to work hard because he does not get support from his children.
"The key issue to promote employment for older persons in rural areas - I think the community industries might be the key economic solution," Sopon Thangphet said.
With the growing number of old people left in the villages, experts say local communities need to take a greater role in helping the elderly meet their needs.