Special Report – 2031: The hyper-aging society scenario

Macau Business | December 2021 | Special Report | Macau’s ageing society

In 10 years – five years ahead of schedule – Macau will be one of the oldest societies in the world.

At the end of 2010 Macau had the second-best demographic profile in the world, behind only Qatar, with a working-age population far exceeding its dependents.Eleven years ago there were about 44,200 elderly people living in Macau, accounting for 8 per cent of the total population.

Even then, however, it was already clear this profile would undergo profound changes.The prediction made at the time was that by 2050 there would be 8 non-working residents – including children and the elderly – for every 10 active workers in Macau.

By 2050 the MSAR could have the oldest population in the world, according to a United Nations report released in 2007. Thus far, the predicted timeline has been generally confirmed if not brought forward.

According to the latest data published by the Statistics and Census Service (DSEC) Macau’s population has already entered an “ageing society” stage.

The World Health Organization defines a country as having an “ageing society” when the proportion of people aged 65 or more is between 7 and 14 per cent of the total population; as having an “aged society” if this proportion is between 15 and 20 per cent; and as having a “super-” or “hyper-aged society” when this proportion is 21 per cent or higher.

In 2020, the 65+ group accounted for 12.9 per cent in Macau, qualifying the Region as an “ageing society”. This is in spite of the fact that “the official number of registered inhabitants is increasing”, remarks Nele Noesselt, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, who is the author of a recent report called Ageing China: The People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.

The census of 2011 reported a total of 552,503 registered inhabitants (up 26.5 per cent compared to 2001), and in 2016 the official population had risen another 17.8 per cent to 650,834. “As main drivers, the 2016 census survey identified the growing number of (labour) migrants as well as positive birth rates,” Noesselt notes. And yet in 2016 the proportion of people aged 65 and over had reached 9 per cent.

According to projections, the 65+ group is expected to grow to almost 20 per cent of Macau’s total population by 2031 due to declining birth rates, which peaked in the mid-1980s, and higher life expectancy. At that point, it is predicted the Region will enter the “hyper-aged society” phase about five years early. The median age will have risen by 5.2 years from 40.4 in 2016 to 45.6 in 2036.

The elderly dependency ratio is therefore also slightly mounting (2016: 12.7 per cent; 2017: 13.7 per cent). “However,” Ms Noesselt adds, “one should also keep in mind that the interim rise of the adult generation had caused a partial relaxation of the situation: in 2011, the median age was between 37 and 38 (not calculating non-permanent migrant workers and exchange students).”

According to the government’s official demographic projections, the number of inhabitants is expected to rise to 793,600 by the year 2036 with the 65+ group accounting for almost 25 per cent.

Based on a compound annual growth rate for the years 2031 to 2036, the total population of Macau could exceed 800,000 in the year 2040, reaching 808,000 as foreseen in the Master Plan, occupying a land area of just 36.8 square kilometres, yielding a population density that by then will have grown to nearly 21,957 people per square kilometre.

According to Nele Noesselt, although the majority of Macau’s current population (around 77 per cent) is aged 15–64, due to a “combined effect of high birth rates during the mid-1980s, influx of labour force from mainland China and the neighbouring Asian countries, as well as the internationalization of Macau’s economy,” the proportion of elderly people in the local population will exceed 14.0% in 2021 (reaching 15.4%), bringing the Region’s entry into the “aged society” phase forward by five years (according to UN standards). It will exceed 21.0% in 2031 (reaching 23.1%), making it a “hyper-aged society” about five years ahead of the curve.

The aging index has been growing consecutively for 24 years. According to a United Nations projection, Macau’s fertility will be on a slight decreasing trend, i.e., the number of births will drop from 34,000 in the years 2020–2025 to 28,000 in the years 2030–2035, while the number of deaths will increase from 15,000 in 2020–2025 to 22,000 in 2030–2035. Both the size and the proportion of the 65+ group will almost double: from 78,000 (12 per cent) to 148,000 (20 per cent) for the same two periods.

Associate Professor Tianji Cai, Department of Sociology, University of Macau, explains, “Given the current migration policy, yes, Macau will experience an aging process, but not as severe as that of Japan, which has a 28 per cent proportion of people aged 65+ in the years 2020–2025”.

Social work expert Donghang Zhang, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, City University of Macau, adds, “I do not think any society is prepared for the outcome of low birth rate and increasing aging populations. An ideal society should have rapid economic growth and sound welfare systems. The indicators for measuring how any society is prepared for addressing ageing problems include seamless social welfare service systems and medical systems, adequate long-term care facilities, continuing education programs, economic security and accommodation, and civil participation.”