31 March - 6 April 2017 #852

Reaping the demographic dividend

Martyn Andrews

The expression ‘the child is the father of the man’ is very prescient to present-day Nepal, but not exactly in the way the poet William Wordsworth intended. Babies born in Nepal today will have to take care of far more elderly people than those born 30 years ago.   This is because of a phenomenon called ‘demographic transition’. Nepal has seen a sharp drop in child mortality, population growth and the average number of children per parent in the past 30 years. This is one of the most dramatic drops among low-income countries, but what it also means is that Nepal’s population is now ageing rapidly.

Ideally, such rapid declines in fertility can propel a country’s economic growth through a process known as the ‘demographic dividend’, but  Nepal has limited time to take advantage of this potential. We are half-way through a window of opportunity lasting another 30 years or so to get our act together and invest in the health, education and upbringing of children born today. Nepal can buy more time to care for larger numbers of older people if we raise the average year of marriage and ensure later births now. And a sure-fire way of doing that is to improve present female literacy levels, and reduce the dropout rate of girls.

Nepal’s age pyramid, which looks like a cone today (with large numbers of children), will be inverted by 2050 as today’s children grow up to live longer, and fewer babies take their place. As a report unveiled last week by the National Planning Commission, UNICEF Nepal and the Population Council points out Japan went through a similar transition 30 years ago. The only difference is that Nepal is experiencing this age shift at a much less advanced stage of economic development. 

Nepal must also start investing in geriatric care, setting up homes for the elderly, changing laws to protect older people and spreading public awareness. As activist Krishna Murari Gautam argues in his Guest Editorial, there is an epidemic of loneliness among senior citizens as traditional family and community systems break down and more and more younger people migrate for work and study.

So, we know the problem. Experts have presented solutions, and they need urgent implementation. Rulers with longer time horizons and requisite political will are needed to prepare for this transition. Fewer and fewer younger people need to earn enough and be capable of providing for more and more elderly people. We have already squandered half the window of opportunity since 1992, let us not waste the other half till 2047.

Read also:

‘A much older tomorrow’, Sonia Awale

‘Old is gold’, Guest editorial

Democracy and demographic shift, Sarthak Mani Sharma

Pitfalls of old age, Buddha Basnyat

Censoring the census