Type to search

Completed work Future of Asia Reports

The Future of Asia: Forces of Change and Potential Surprises – Supplementary Report

Image of yellow arrows going from left to right against a white background for The Future of Asia Forces of Change and Potential Surprises Supplementary Report blog post
Share this

Implications of Demographic Shifts on Migration, Employment and Health

On this page

What is it?
Why is it important?

What is it?

The demographic shifts of ageing, youth bulge and sex ratio imbalance will play out differently across Asia, against the backdrop of rapid economic development and urbanization. Many countries in East Asia are currently enjoying strong economic growth as a result of a large working-age population, but will soon experience a notable decline in these populations. Those ageing fastest include Japan, South Korea and Singapore, with China not far behind. By 2025, Japan’s over-65 population will represent 34% of the total population, making it the “oldest” country in the world.1 In the same timeframe, the proportion of China’s over-65 population will increase from 10% to 15%.2 The situation will only worsen as the over-60 population in China hits 360 million by 2030 and 430 million by 2040.3

While East Asia is ageing, South Asia is experiencing a youth bulge. Over the next thirty years, the bulk of population growth in the region will take place in South Asia. In 2030, about 68% of India’s population will be of working age. 4

A skewed sex ratio imbalance has emerged in a number of Asian countries, including China, India, Nepal and Vietnam. The skewed sex ratio at birth (SRB) imbalance is most pronounced in China, where an estimated 119 boys are born for every 100 girls.5 By 2020, it is estimated that 24 million Chinese men will be unable to find a wife in their own country.6

Rapid urbanization is also contributing to demographic change in Asia. Some 1.1 billion people (100,000 people per day) will be moving to urban environments in Asia in the next fifteen years, meaning that 50% of Asia’s population will be living in cities by 2020. In many East and Southeast Asian countries the movement of labour from farms to factories has driven industrial development.

Why is it important?

In coming years, these demographic changes will combine to produce a complex story of positive and negative consequences that Asian countries have yet to prepare for or appreciate.

Mass migration: Migration will be driven by three factors. First, many Asians will continue to migrate to urban centres in search of opportunity, including higher incomes, access to health services, education and social networks. While this will bring upward mobility for some, it also puts others at risk of social dislocation and its associated consequences, such as higher rates of suicide, crime and violence.

Second, the shortage of working-age people in East Asia is likely to result in an influx of young workers from South Asia. Demand for elder-care workers (which will also be in short supply as it is traditionally a female occupation) will be a key factor. It is estimated that by 2030, China alone will require approximately ten million caregivers to meet the needs of its ageing population.7 Currently, there are only 300,000 people working in the field.8

Third, the skewed SRB will also create a relative scarcity of women that will draw people across borders. Marriage is a social expectation. With more competition, there will be increasing material requirements to secure marriage, and in many cases men will have to look to other countries for a spouse, delay marriage, or will not be able to marry at all. The skewed SRB will likely also spur an increase in sex work and human trafficking. A survey of 3,000 Indian sex workers revealed 73% had worked in overseas labour markets.9 Human trafficking is also linked to the migration of sex workers. In 2001, 42,000 kidnapped women and children who had been sold into marriage or prostitution were freed by police in China.10

Disease risk: The increased movement of people increases the risk of disease. The deadly outbreak of a new strain of bird flu in China (H7N9) in 2013 caused 45 deaths.11 An estimated 10 million female sex workers in Asia, with an estimated 75 million male clients, have the potential to result in widespread sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.12 The spread of disease due to migration may add to the social service burden that will not be evenly distributed between countries.

Economic openness: As countries become more reliant on external sources to fulfil domestic labour shortages, issues such as diplomatic ties, border control, trade, citizenship, wages and working conditions will need to be addressed. Efforts to attract the limited pool of younger workers may result in improvements in these areas. At the same time, those countries that choose immigration will need strategies to foster positive intercultural relations and social cohesion.

Breakdown of traditional cultural and social barriers: Increased openness also has the potential to break down some longstanding cultural and social barriers, especially in countries that are largely homogenous (e.g., Japan). Immigration and the diversification of workforces and populations will represent a significant shift for some Asian countries. This has the potential to soften norms that have previously prevented inter-marriages between castes and ethnicities, or women in Asia from accessing employment, particularly higher paid skilled jobs. On the flip-side, migrant workers can also exacerbate the breakdown of traditional family structures both at home and abroad. Those left behind bear the social costs of the migrant worker phenomena. For example, there are approximately 9 million children in the Philippines being raised by extended family members.13 Children left behind have been linked to increasing instances of mental and physical abuse as well as alcoholism and drug abuse later in life.


  1. “Meet the 2020 Chinese Consumer.” McKinsey Consumer & Shopper Insights, McKinsey Insights China, McKinsey & Company 2012. March 2012. http://www.mckinseychina.com/resources/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/mckinsey-meet-the-2020-consumer.pdf(link is external)
  2. Ibid.
  3. Schure, T. “China’s Gender Imbalance.” Worldpress.org. January 2011. http://www.worldpress.org/Asia/3676.cfm; (link is external)Cary, E. “China’s People Problem.” The Diplomat. February 2013. http://thediplomat.com/2013/02/chinas-people-problem/(link is external)
  4. Drysdale, P. “Asia’s demographic transition over the next 30 years.” East Asia Forum. March 2013. http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2013/03/18/asias-demographic-transition-over-the-next-30-years/(link is external)
  5. Golley, J. and R. Tyers. “China’s Gender Imbalance and its Economic Performance.” Australian Centre on China in the World. August 2012. http://www.thechinastory.org/chinas-gender-imbalance-and-its-economic-performance(link is external)
  6. “China faces growing gender imbalance.” BBC News. January 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8451289.stm(link is external)
  7. Kleinman, A. and H. Chen. “Looking after the Elderly — Asia’s Next Big Challenge.” Fung Global Institute. April 2012. http://www.fungglobalinstitute.org/en/looking-after-elderly-asia%E2%80%99s-next-big-challenge(link is external)
  8. Ibid.
  9. Kaufman, J. “HIV, Sex Work, and Civil Society in China.” The Journal of Infectious Diseases (Volume 204, Issue Supplement 5). December 2011. http://jid.oxfordjournals.org/content/204/suppl_5/S1218.full(link is external)
  10. Liu, L. and W. Leonard. “Influence of China’s One Child Policy on Sexual Economy: Wife Trafficking in Urban vs. Rural China.” North Western University, Global Health. http://www.ipd.northwestern.edu/images/students-research/Influence%20of%20Chinas%20One%20Child%20Policy%20on%20Sexual%20Economy.pdf(link is external)
  11. Kelland, K. “New bird flu poses ‘serious threat’ scientists say.” Reuters. May 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/01/us-birdflu-threat-idUSBRE94011D20130501(link is external)
  12. Idem. “HIV, Sex Work, and Civil Society in China.” The Journal of Infectious Diseases. December 2011.
  13. Reyes, M. M. ”Migration and Flilipino Children Left=Behind.: A Literature Review”, UNICEF, July 2008. http://www.unicef.org/philippines/Synthesis_StudyJuly12008.pdf
Avatar photo
Policy Horizons | Horizons de politiques

Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

  • 1

You might also like