OPINION – Facts of life

Data from last year’s Census is coming out when most attention is focusing elsewhere. Undoubtedly, demographic data rarely call our attention or grab the headlines except when some prominent feature, often a perceived imbalance of some sort, reminds us of its undercurrents.

Then we realize that we are observing the outcome of events or decisions taken long ago. Its effects are never easily reverted, and whatever actions we decide on will inevitably take a long time to produce effects. It is, in many ways, that long lead time that keeps demographic issues usually in the background, overcome by more pressing matters. 

The lack of immediacy, if we can put it that way, makes demography the poor cousin of social sciences – seldom remembered and mostly annoying when we must. But we would be unwise, I believe, to ignore its impact if we want to raise the eyes above the short-term horizon.  

As the Macau economy grew driven by the casino boom, its population grew fast. The boom occurred, however, when the effects of earlier natality trends were starting to bite. From the 1980s to the end of the century, Macau saw a steady and fast decline in births rates. By the beginning of the new century, they were about one-fourth of what they were before.

When the ‘new’ economy needed them, the necessary local workers were missing. Obviously, the only answer was a significant rise in imported workers. The continuation of very high economic growth rates would require increasing numbers of non-residents, which raises other social and economic issues, but let us leave that aside here. 

The fact is that the number of locals arriving at the labor market cannot compensate those leaving it, let alone sustain the previous growth rates. Indeed, there was a temporary pick-up in birth rates at the beginning of this century, presumably associated with the rising prosperity of the new casino era. But numbers receded again meanwhile. 

Anyway, those additional births will not change the main issues at stake when they start joining the labor force in the coming years. Further, mortality dropped during the last four decades, and life expectancy rose. The aging of the local population will be an increasingly delicate matter. When discussing the new economic compact for the next ten or twenty years, we would be well advised to factor in the demographics at play.