Changing the age structure of the population as a means to generate economic growth should be a top priority of the political agenda in current Bangladesh. Following the demographic transition model, the shift from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility is a positive development and an outstanding achievement for Bangladesh. The fall in fertility and mortality has led to a slower population growth and an increased concentration of the working-age (15-64 years) population from the demographic point of view. Population aged 0-14 years is called the 'young or junior dependent population' whereas those 65 years and above are 'old or senior dependent.' The country where senior dependents account for 7% or more of the total population is called an 'aging society.' When the same rate becomes 14% or more of the total population, it is called an 'aged society.' Thus, the country needs to transition from an aging society to an aged society. As the number of older persons in Bangladesh increases, the total resources required to meet their needs grow. More importantly, the country needs to adapt to this change.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and the United Nations Population Division, 8.3% of the Bangladeshi population are aged 60 and above but will reach 11.6% in 2030 and 16.2% in 2040. Population aged 65+ years will be 7.4% in 2030 and 11.1% in 2040. Thus, various studies indicate that the country will become an aging society in 2029 and an aged society by 2047. This is one of the fastest aging speeds compared with other South Asian countries.
However, considering the changing age structure of Bangladesh's population, the country is enjoying the potential opportunities that provide in the form of a 'demographic bonus' - which is named as 'demographic dividend.' Our studies show that the demographic window of opportunity in Bangladesh will remain open until 2035 to 2037. Thus, the country's favorable current age structure holds great opportunities for higher productivity and economic growth for the next 14-15 years; mismanagement of these opportunities can easily turn into a 'demographic debt.' Both short- and long-term policy interventions are required to gain maximum benefit of first and second demographic dividends.
Addressing youth vulnerabilities to achieve demographic dividend:
Before addressing the vulnerabilities of youth, it is required to define- 'Who is youth?.' In the National Youth Policy 2017, 'Youth' is defined as 18-35 years. However, the BBS considers 'Youth' as 15-29 years, while the most international bodies like the UN often use the ages between 15-24 years in which people (10-24 years) are considered 'Youth.' Thus, the policies related to the youth population should be well defined and integrated using appropriate definitions and heterogeneity of demands and vulnerabilities of this sub-group of the population.
We need to remember that a large proportion of youth in a population doesn't necessarily mean it will act as an accelerator for overall development. How this large group of people is given the right opportunities is crucial for economic and social success. A youth population always has some distinctive positive and negative implications for development. Without addressing the challenges of youth, a country cannot proceed on its path of sustainable development.
Currently available, the latest Labour Force Survey (LFS) of the BSS refers to the unemployment rate of the country as 4.3% in 2016-2017, whereas it was 4.6% in 2010. But youth unemployment (aged 15-29) rate was 11% in 2016-2017, whereas it was 6% in 1994. Youth (aged 15-29 years) not in employment, education, or training (NEET) is 29.8%, of which female was 49.4% in 2016-2017. The NEET of the youth has further effects due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the current and future labour markets. To tackle the unemployment crisis of youth, stimulating youth entrepreneurship can be a potential solution. The economic self-sufficiency of youths can be increased if they possess an enterprising mindset to improve their financial position.
Moreover, in Bangladesh, youth female (15-29 years) labour force participation is very low -which is almost half of male youths in work (32.3% vs. 66.7% in 2016-2017). However, despite their capacities and potential, young women cannot contribute to the economy appropriately because of the prevalent custom of early child marriage and early childbearing, which restrict them from reaping the benefits of their educational attainments and getting decent employment. The low female labour force participation in Bangladesh shows the results of these practices.
The lack of quality education is another crucial factor for youths not getting suitable employment opportunities. The mismatch between employers' requirements for specific skills and youths not having proper training and education creates a skill gap that results in unemployment and underemployment of young people. It is believed that this can be mitigated by adopting an appropriate communication strategy between educators, employers and students. In addition, technical and vocational education facilities should ensure equal access for male and female students.
The promotion of inclusive education for children and young people, which is advocated in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), should be ensured in Bangladesh's school system. The vulnerable and left behind groups should have the same access to educational and employment opportunities. The drug addiction and engagement of youths in crimes have been a big problem in Bangladesh. These should be tackled by promoting sports, different cultural activities, and initiatives towards developing the social and psychological health of the youth.
Health issues, especially sexual and reproductive health, are also a big concern for youth in Bangladesh. The integration of youth-friendly services is needed in every health facility in the country. Emphasising the right of every young person to have good health is essential. Also, the elimination of gender-based violence towards youths should get priority.
The heterogeneity of youth demands and approaches from different angles are needed to improve their overall situation. Therefore, Bangladesh has to put efforts into proper coordination and integration towards creating timely plans and policies regarding youths. Not only will the framing of plans pave the way in this regard, but proper monitoring and evaluation of youth programmes should be ensured.
Addressing vulnerabilities of older persons to achieve demographic dividend:
Population ageing will be a major challenge to address their needs and demands. The situation will be manageable only by making good use of the intervening period, in terms of raising income levels, developing programmes of active ageing, introducing appropriate income support programmes, and modifying health systems to adjust to the altered pattern of both communicable and non-communicable diseases and disability resulting from a rising proportion of elderly in the population. There is a very wide range of social safety-net programmes in place. Still, only 10-24% of the poor receive social safety net programme benefits, and these schemes also suffer from misallocation, fraud and corruption. Thus, ways need to be found to improve the target and increase coverage of the older poor.
Older persons have great potential for the overall development of the country. Proper utilisation of their skills and experience in the social and economic sectors of the country can be essential, but only if they are treated as a valuable resource rather than as a burden. Considering the second demographic dividend, savings and investment should be the focus. Current healthcare needs and related barriers of older people should be adequately addressed. The process of active ageing should prioritise both at the micro and macro levels so that older people can actively participate in all aspects of society. Considering the transition of the family structure caused by societal transformations, such as the nucleation of families and the growth of a more individualistic lifestyle, family support for older persons is decreasing both in urban and rural areas. The integration of proper elderly care at every level of the healthcare system, the establishment of geriatric care, and providing home-based care should get its proper place in the country's healthcare transformation.
The employment opportunities for older people should receive due attention in labour market policies. The Labour Force Survey, 2016-2017, shows the currently economically active population aged 65+ years in the labour force participation was 31% (male- 47.1% vs. female 8.7%). Therefore, increasing the retirement age and establishing job opportunities for older persons in the urban and rural contexts should be adequately planned. Furthermore, to reduce the economic vulnerability of older persons, the coverage and effectiveness of social safety plans, such as old age allowance and pension, should be increased to cover their needs.
Also, the National Policy on Older Persons (2013) is needed to be updated and implemented effectively. By addressing the needs and potential of older people, the country can open the way to a society where older persons are a precious asset for development and can play a valuable role in social, economic and cultural life.
The neglect of emerging population issues such as aging, high proportions of youth unemployed or in NEET, leaving persons with disability behind, and maintaining high levels of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy could seriously diminish the chances of harnessing the first demographic dividend in Bangladesh. It is essential to emphasise the health and education of the workforce. However, Bangladesh's budgetary allocations in health and education are not adequate following the total allocation, which needs to follow the recommendation by the WHO and UNESCO.
Population ageing is more of a challenge and an opportunity than a problem. Ageing itself is a part of the natural course of demographic development. Thus, Bangladesh has to adapt to that change, and it becomes a problem when timely action for adaptation is not taken.
Considering to gain benefits from the second demographic dividend that is 'longevity dividend' characterised by an accumulation of wealth and savings as older individuals save for consumption at old age and invest in their human capital, especially in health and education. Thus, there can be economic benefits in the demographic transition. As there is a growing need for people to save more in preparation for old age, population ageing will raise the ratio of capital to labour, making labour more productive, contributing to capital accumulation and fostering economic growth. Also, the second demographic dividend can be more permanent or self-sustaining as demand for life-cycle wealth stabilises at a higher level.
Bangladesh can reap the benefits of this future longevity dividend as mentioned above if the country is forward-looking and acts early; the opportunities can potentially lead to improved productivity over longer lifespans and an increase in gross national income. For that, current and future tech innovations will need to support a healthy ageing population through ensuring financial freedom and stability; supporting early detection of diseases by AI and digital markers; health status monitoring and connecting with healthcare professionals; affordable healthcare; addressing sensory decline, stabilisation of cognitive functioning, connecting older adults on digital platforms; and mobility and transportation- as suggested by Nathalie Giroud, Sanskriti Thakur and Poorna Iyer (World Economic Forum, 30 Nov 2021). No doubt, living longer is a significant achievement for us but for many five-year-olds today – who might live to 100- it could mean working for 60 years or more (Victoria Masterson, World Economic Forum, 6 January 2022). Policies and institutions must be changed to reflect this. The traditional one-way road from education to work to retirement must be replaced with more flexible routes in and out of the workplace. Thus, looking to the future, efforts should be made to adapt social protection systems, labour market, health and care. The current stage of demographic bonuses will not return in the foreseeable future. So, Bangladesh must make a sustainable plan in the long run for a realistic one with updated facts and figures through ensuring good governance.
Finally, following the demographic transition model- Phase 3 (fertility onset in decline, declining child and adult mortality) and Phase 4 (fertility is declining to low, child mortality is declining, but adult mortality is on rising), harnessing the first and second demographic dividends should be a matter of urgent action in Bangladesh. For that, considering the age structure of the country's population, economic, labour, health and education policies should be updated and revised accordingly. To address the first demographic dividend the country is now experiencing, the education policy should emphasise improving the quality of teaching and ensuring a match between skills taught and skills in demand -- investing savings from fewer dependents in higher education. The labour policy should focus on creating productive jobs (more rapidly), favouring the creation of employment in high-value sectors, and supporting the development of indigenous entrepreneurs. But for economic policies— promoting free trade, household savings, diversifying trade by goods and destinations, and investing in infrastructures are needed. Also, for the second demographic dividend, the country will need to focus on high-value, tech-driven economic growth, promote savings, lengthen the working-age period, invest in programmes to employ older populations, invest in adult education and job-retraining and focus education towards skills needed for the technology sector. As the creation of the opportunity has already been done now, it is time for capitalising and prolonging this opportunity through right short- and long-term policies and their implementation considering the vulnerabilities and challenges of the current and future youth and older persons of the country.
Dr. Mohammad Mainul Islam is Professor & Former Chairman, Department of Population Sciences, University of Dhaka. He can be reached at [email protected]