Economic potential of reemploying aged

With home-based care now in vogue, some states in the US are also encouraging family members to take on more of the responsibilityof caring for their elderly.

Nie Zaiqing beams as he points to a PowerPoint slide.

At the recent 2018 Shanghai Forum, held by Fudan University and sponsored by South Korea’s SK Group, an engineer from AI Lab of Alibaba explained how a cylindrical object called TmallGenie can accomplish a variety of tasks, including making phone calls, doing an Internet search and ordering takeaway food using voice recognition.

He proudly claimed that this AI-powered gadget might help senior citizens, especially those unfamiliar with smartphones.

A panel discussion during the forum provided an opportunity for industry experts like Nie to share their insights into the issue of aging.

A widely echoed argument made at the panel discussion was that in so far as aging is an increasingly significant problem, it also offers plenty of business opportunities.

To address the issue, we will have to push the boundary in innovation, said Peng Xizhe, director of the Center for Population and Development Policy Studies at Fudan University.

As the moderator of a sub-panel, Peng said that since the introduction of the second-child policy in 2016, “Shanghai’s birth rate initially stood around 1.1 percent, then slipped further to 0.9 percent,” meaning the number of births per 1,000 inhabitants in a year declined from 11 to 9. The figure is even lower than in the US and Japan, said Peng.

As he sees it, China has fallen into an aging trap, so to speak, and given the current fertility rates, unless some audacious steps are taken we might have cause to be gloomy about the country’s demographic future.

Innovation is about a lot more than technological advances; it often means embracing concepts and practices once frowned upon.

The US experience is telling in this regard. Edward Lawlor, dean of the Brown School at Washington University in St Louis, told the audience that senior care used to be assigned to contracted providers, like nursing homes.

With home-based care now in vogue, some states in the US are also encouraging family members to take on more of the responsibility of caring for their elderly. One of the encouragements is financial incentives like rewards bestowed upon care-givers.

This is something tremendously innovative, because “there is always a fear about paying a family member to care for seniors,” lest a moral obligation become commercialized.

Some states offer up to US$15 per hour for home-based care-givers. This suggests that the popular attitudes toward home-based care have changed dramatically, said Lawlor. He conceded, however, that policy innovation “coming out of the woodwork” is often taken advantage of or actively resisted.

That said, all the panelists agreed that the biggest innovation is a change in people’s mindset.

Wu Yushao, deputy director of China’s National Commission on Aging, pointed out that aging is essentially an economic issue. The authority may have over-emphasized the nature of aging policies as “social policies,” but in fact, they should be tweaked to account for the economic dimension, said Wu.

Back to work

His suggestion is for China to enhance the capacity of its senior citizens so that some of them may be pushed back into the labor force as part of a drive to create new “demographic dividends.”

If his advice is followed, many pensioners may work in more sophisticated jobs than driving taxis or distributing leaflets.

No country is perhaps more adept at unleashing the economic potential of reemploying pensioners than Japan. Many Japanese taxi drivers are gray-haired men. According to Professor Toshio Obi, who teaches at Waseda University, despite being shaken to the core by the demographic challenge, Japan is determined to make the best of it.

Reemployment of retirees appears to be an inevitable option for a country where nearly 40 percent of the population is above 60. Obi and his team at Waseda once polled a number of Japanese over 60 to gauge their attitude to reemployment after retirement.

About 80 percent of respondents said they were willing to work again, but only 20 percent got what they wanted.

“This signifies a mismatch between their capabilities and the skills expected of them,” said Obi.

Apart from complicating Japan’s national plan to reemploy its senior citizens, technology also has its bright side.

The commercial application of high-tech promises to satisfy the needs of those choosing to age in place, such as helper robots capable of feeding them.

China is rapidly graying just like its neighbor. By 2017, the number of Chinese above 60 and 65 accounted for 17.3 percent and 11.4 percent respectively of the national population.

President Xi Jinping has spoken many times about the importance of developing senior care services and the aged care industry.

Asked to identify the biggest problems facing the industry, Wang Zhiliang, a professor at the University of Science and Technology in Beijing, cited a serious lack of data about the consumption patterns of senior citizens — without which interested companies can hardly make a move.

As such, the national authority should establish a state-level database, offering information helpful in harnessing the potential of industry catering to the elderly. Fortunately, this will be a key task to be completed over the course of implementing the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), Wang observed.

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