The world as a whole is getting older. Around 34 countries in the world currently have a senior citizen population (aged 65 years or older) which is larger than their working-age population. By 2050, that could increase to as much as 90. By mid century, one in six humans will be aged above 65 years, up from one in 11 in 2019.

South Korea, which witnessed a rapid growth both in its economy and population post the Korean war, is one of the major Asian economies — along with Japan — which is already well ahead of the curve on this demographic shift towards older populations. Its population declined for the first time in 2020. Its fertility rate, at 0.84 births per woman, is the lowest in the world. Its demographic dividend — when the maximum percentage of its population fell within the working age — peaked around 1990.

Opportunity squandered

How South Korea deals with its ageing population while sustaining its economic prosperity and national security — wars are fought by young soldiers, not greybeards — is interesting to follow for other countries. Including India, which has already squandered the peak years of its demographic dividend, and will soon have to deal with a greying population.

While our policy attention has been focused on the youth population — how to educate, skill and find jobs for the millions joining the workforce every year — the problem of an ageing population — despite India unveiling a policy for older persons as far back as 1999 — has fallen largely off the radar.

India’s 60-plus population is projected to touch 194 million in 2031 from 138 million in 2021, according to the National Statistical Office (NSO)’s Elderly in India 2021 report. This is a rise of 41 per cent. The old-age dependency ratio — defined as the number of persons aged 60-plus per 100 persons relative to the age group 15-59 — is projected to rise to over 20 per cent by 2031.

Economically, this puts enormous pressure on the elderly. According to the first Longitudinal Ageing Study India (LASI), the findings of the first wave which were made available last year, nearly 62 per cent of people aged 45-59 years and 35.7 per cent of aged 60 years and above are currently working.

This does not mean that they are secure, since a bulk of these are engaged in the already overloaded agricultural sector. According to LASI, there are 4.4 per cent people aged 45-59 years and 1.5 per cent of age 60 years and above, who were, at the time of the survey, actively seeking jobs.

But simply seeking a job, as we know, does not mean that they will get one. That depends on their educational qualifications, skills and past experience. And that, given the current status of employability in India among the youth — according to the World Economic Forum, only one in four management professionals, one in five engineers, and one in 10 graduates are employable — is a tough ask.

This is where South Korea’s example becomes interesting. The government would allocate an extra W11.2 trillion (about ₹75,400 crore) for higher and lifelong education. This sum will come from fresh budgetary allocations as well as W3.2 trillion which will be taken out from the budget for school education — early-childhood, primary and secondary — and allotted to education and reskilling of older adults.

According to media reports, Korea’s school-age population is declining with falling birth rates. What was sensible a few years ago is now no longer so. Fewer children need to be educated now, while the number of adults with re-skilling/upskilling needs is growing. Higher education in South Korea is relatively underfunded compared to Western economies with which it competes in technological prowess. The new redistribution is meant to address that.

The Indian scene

Should India do something similar? That is a devilishly difficult choice for policymakers. Given the nature of our electoral politics, resources have been targeted at building physical infrastructure — roads, bridges, airports and metros — which can be touted as “achievements” come election time. And then there is the “revdi” culture of freebies targeted at vote bank, of which the ruling party at the Centre is as fond of as the Opposition parties in the States it blames for this.

That has meant that education as a whole has always remained chronically underfunded. The government allots roughly 16 per cent of its expenditure to education. The Centre and States together spend about 4 per cent of GDP on education. This too, is recent. The historical average is just around 3 per cent of GDP, about half of what experts recommend.

Given that everybody is underfunded, and that we will hit our demographic peak of having the maximum percentage of population in the working age only in a decade’s time, it could be argued that asking for resources for re-skilling and lifelong learning might be foolish.

But the need for such a spend is growing more pressing by the year. We already missed the bus on reaping the full benefit of our demographic dividend by not investing enough on education and skill-building when we should have, with the result that millions continue to enter the workforce with little apart from labour to offer.

Unless we look at the problem of our greying population now — when the numbers are still not unmanageable — we will be left with the situation of having grown old before growing rich, putting an intolerable burden on future generations.