It’s widely recognized that the face of Asia is changing, with many countries in the region – especially in North Asia — ageing rapidly. This shift in Asia’s demographics has brought with it a host of economic opportunities and challenges, but it’s important to recognize that an ageing Asia is much more than just an economic issue.
Despite differences in culture, religion and history across the continent, the one value that has always united Asia is the importance of family in people’s lives. When people talk about how Asian consumers are “collectivist” rather than “individualistic,” what they actually mean on a day-to-day basis is that Asians are more likely than consumers elsewhere in the world to consider the impact of any decision they make on the people whose lives are economically entangled with theirs: their spouses, children, siblings, parents.
There’s no such thing as “my money,” because the $100 one splurges on a pricey meal or a new dress, is $100 not contributed to an ageing parent’s increasing medical costs.
This familial interdependence is the foundation on which the rest of what makes Asian consumers different are built. Despite the influx of influences from the rest of the world, the waxing and waning of faith and religion, and the opportunities opened up by increasing wealth to pursue individual ambitions, Asian societies have remained unmistakably Asian because the core has always held: The Asian family has always held strong.
However, the pace at which Asia is ageing, combined with a lack of extra-familial structures to provide for the elderly, is putting unprecedented pressure on the Asian family, and it’s beginning to show. In China, increasing incidences of elderly parents being neglected, have led to a law requiring adult children to visit their parents, or risk being sued. In India, the town of Vrindavan has become a city of widows, a place of last resort – or worse, a dumping ground – for elderly people whose children can’t or won’t pay for their care. In Singapore, there is growing concern about an increasing number of cases of elderly parents abandoned abroad – in neighboring Malaysia, Indonesia and China.
A generation ago, these stories would have been unthinkable, and for most consumers in Asia, they still are. But it does open up the question of what happens to “traditional Asian values” when the bedrock on which it’s built is shaken by an unstoppable demographic shift. How Asians grapple with, and resolve, this conflict, will go a long way to determining the future of Asia.
Jeremy Sy is Head of Consulting at The Futures Company’s Asia office.