Everything else.. Sri Lanka’s Ageing Population and The Challenges it Presents

Sri Lanka’s Ageing Population and The Challenges it Presents

2021 Jul 13

An ageing population is defined as one where there is a shift in the composition of the age profile of a country’s citizens towards the elder segment. A fast-ageing population is seen to be common in Eastern and South Asian countries, with Sri Lanka reporting the highest average age of its populace in the region. Over the past 30 years, the number of household members has seen a steady decline in the country. According to the Income and Expenditure Report 2016, the average household which reported a size of 5.1 in 1985, has now reduced to 3.8. Additionally, with social indicators like universal healthcare facilities and strong child immunisation programmes, Sri Lanka has reported an increase in life expectancy over the recent years, recording 77.22 years in 2021.

As such, the country is experiencing a mismatch in generational numbers, where the percentage of the population retiring each year outweighs that of the population entering the workforce. Hence, the declining birth rate coupled with higher life longevity in the country brings with it numerous effects, and is expected to impact multiple aspects of the country’s development in the foreseeable future. Professor Amala De Silva from the University of Colombo shared her views on how the local landscape is expected to adapt to this rapid ageing of its citizens.

Shifting labour markets – A source of economic turbulence?

Although economic growth does not solely depend on the age of its working population, research has shown a strong correlation between the development of East Asia in the past 50 years and the boom in its working-age population. Demographic experts have explained that a contributor towards economic growth comes from dividends gained by a country’s government when its working population exceeds dependents (elderly and children). However, Sri Lanka’s numbers have not shown a satisfactory ratio, raising concerns for possible economic implications. At present, the country is already experiencing a shortage of labour and unavailability of certain skills, leading to the expensive outsourcing of such jobs to technology and/ or foreign labour.

In addition to this, workforce productivity also plays a key role in a country’s economy. As Sri Lanka’s working population ages, its productivity also shows a decline due to physical and cognitive hindrances caused by ageing. Moreover, higher numbers of dependents in households cause a drop in public savings with increased expenditure on their health and welfare. This, in turn, reduces public funds available for investments.

Universal Pension schemes – Hit or Miss for Sri Lanka?

Taking a look at macroeconomic models surrounding universal pension schemes and various senior citizen discounts, it is clear that Sri Lanka would benefit from such initiatives. However, the country’s labour statistics show that even today, 67% of those employed belong to the informal sector, where basic legislations such as EPF/ETF schemes are not in place. In addition to addressing these, the country is challenged with the introduction of such schemes as a result of its adverse budgetary situation.

Rather, Prof. Amala believes that arising economic implications may be avoided through early planning and strict policy changes affecting the complete age spectrum in Sri Lanka. At present, women only contribute to 33% of Sri Lanka’s workforce. By encouraging greater participation of women in the country’s labour force, the percentage of dependents of the population can be reduced.

Furthermore, the extension of the working age in the country to 70 years will help individuals save more for retirement and reduce dependence on their working children. However, this should be implemented in an organised manner – exploring opportunities such as part-time jobs and working from home. Prior to changes in the working age, a new set of population necessities such as visual and hearing aids and mobility equipment for an efficient working senior population, also needs to be addressed.

Healthcare and wellbeing for an aged population

Studies have shown that mental health issues are a growing concern among senior citizens around the world. Some causes have been identified as neglect, dealing with the loss of loved ones, and feelings of emptiness from past years. In addition to these, long-term conditions such as Alzheimer’s and cancers have contributed greatly to depression and mental illness in the elderly. Thus, areas such as palliative care and senior citizen psychology will have to develop with the ageing population of Sri Lanka. The country is also expected to see an increasing need for physiotherapy facilities focused on improving the motility of the elderly.

Today, treatment for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Sri Lanka is done through Long Term Care services. As a result, over 50% of people admitted to hospitals (measured in bed-days) have been patients over 60 years of age. As the population ages, this poses an immense strain on the hospital capacity in Sri Lanka and calls for the need for policies of early intervention. Health experts advise citizens in their 30’s and 40’s to take their health more seriously, and to be educated through prevention and awareness programmes. By starting with this age group, they believe that even younger generations may be benefited through influence, resulting in an overall healthier nation in the years to come.

Change needed now, for a better tomorrow

The percentage of citizens over 60 years of age is expected to rise from 14% to 25% by the year 2050 in Sri Lanka. As such, the need for action is now – be it through healthier lifestyle choices, economic policies or new technologies that would benefit the elderly. Are we going to stay and watch idly as we age into a helpless nation or make the changes needed to reduce the burden on the future of our country and ourselves?