Vietnam's rapid aging population a new challenge

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Vietnam did not adequately exploit its youth population structure of the last few years and now has to prepare for the difficulties of a rapidly aging population, experts say.

Young people cheer for the New Year in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Experts said that while Vietnam has not adequately taken advantage of its youthful population, the country is also not well-prepared for its rapid aging population. Photo by Diep Duc Minh  

Duong Quoc Trong, director of the General Department of Population and Family Planning, is sounding alarm bells that Vietnam's population will soon be too old and that families should start having two children.

Trong's proclamations stand in contrast to the decades-old policy of having only one child, meant to control a population that reached 90 million people last year.

"Now we need a new policy aiming at the well-being of everyone," he said.

Vietnam initially took measures to control its population in the 1960s when the average number of children per each mother of birthing age was 6.4.

But the country's short period of what analysts called a "golden population structure" - when the workforce outnumbered dependents - has now brought about considerable challenges in meeting the need of that population as it grows older and less people are of working age.

While Vietnam is unprepared for the fully-aging population expected to come in 18 years, the country has all not done enough to take advantage of its current youthful population, experts say.

Vietnam needs realistic policies and strategies based on concrete evidence about the relationship between ageing populations and economic growth and the specific social services needed for older persons, including healthcare, they say.

Longer but more feeble lives

Trong said the average life expectancy of Vietnamese people has significantly increased to 73 years old, up from 40 in 1960.

"Together with a rapid decrease in births, increasing life expectancy has led to a faster aging pace of the population than many other countries," he said.

After the 2009 census, the General Statistics Office predicted that Vietnam would face population aging challenges by 2017. However, analysts began issuing warnings in 2011 when 7 percent of the population became 65 years old or older. The proportion is expected to double by 2030.

"Population aging has created challenges, including financial difficulties for older people. We live longer but the quality of life is low," Trong said.

Of the over-65 population, more than 70 percent have no savings, 18 percent live in poor families and only 30 percent of them have pensions.

However the average healthy lifespan is low at 64 years, ranking 124th out of 193 countries worldwide, he said.

According to the General Department of Population, the 80-and-over age group is growing fast and is depending more and more on healthcare services.

Trong warned that many parents in big cities having only one child may make things worse.

Ho Chi Minh City had the lowest birth rate in the country at 1.45 children per couple in 2009. The rate was 1.3 in 2011 and 1.33 in 2012.

The national rate is 2.06 children per couple.

"If every couple has a child, in dozens of years, a person of working age will on average support six dependents, including four grandparents and parents," Trong said.

Pham Vu Hoang, deputy director of the Center for Studies, Information and Documentation, said despite government policies on healthcare, social security and welfare for the elderly, only about 40 percent of older people have accessed special treatments.

"In our country, 70 percent of the elderly population lives in the countryside and the majority depend on their children. We all know that living conditions in the countryside are much poorer than in urban areas," he was quoted by Tin Tuc newspaper as saying.

"Another issue is that the cost of providing healthcare to the elderly is some four times higher than to children of less than 4 years old," he added.

At a workshop on population aging in Hanoi last September, Arthur Erken, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in Vietnam, said the country needs policies and strategies involving specific social service needs for older persons while at the same time also investing in young people.

"We need to ensure inclusion of aging and the needs of older persons in all national development policies and programs, including gender policies, humanitarian response and climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.

"We need to remember that the older persons of today were young some years ago, and that the young people of today will be the next generation of older persons. Thus, investing in young people's health, education, participation and decent employment is important in dealing with the needs of future generations of older persons," he said.

Poor quality "˜gold'

An unskilled workforce and insufficient investment in education and training are both reasons that Vietnam has not been able to fully exploit its "golden" population structure, experts say.

"We often say trained workers are in surplus and the number of manual workers are insufficient. However, this saying should be changed to: "˜a surplus of poorly trained workers and an insufficient amount of good manual workers'," Pham Thi Tran Chau, chairwoman of the Vietnam Intellectual Women's Association, said.

According to the UN, Vietnam is currently experiencing the rare phenomenon of a "demographic bonus" with two or more persons of working age for every person of dependent age (under 15 or 60 and over), meaning it has a large population of young people.

But at a conference on December 24 held by the Party's Central Economic Committee, many experts said Vietnam had failed to produce any gold from its population structure.

According to the General Statistics Office, the number of unemployed people is not large but the productivity of the current workforce is lower than it should be.

Workers in rural areas account for 70 percent of the nation's workforce but only 13.4 percent of them are trained, according to a study released at the conference.

Many experts at the event said they are concerned with the quality of education and training, an important element deciding the quality of the workforce.

Dinh Van Cuong, vice chairman of the Central Economic Committee, urged for more technology research and applications besides improving the training of the workforce. 

Malnourished workforce

The challenges facing an aging population are becoming clearer day by day, experts say. There are still too many children, who will be the workforce in the coming decades and supporting dependents, are not properly nourished.

The National Institute of Nutrition has warned about increasing obesity among children, with between 5-6 percent of students in primary and high schools suffering from the problem that could lead to chronic diseases.

Dr. Do Trung Quan of Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi said type 2 diabetes among the youth is the result of being malnourished and a lack of physical activities.

Nguyen Van Binh, a lecturer from Hanoi Medical University, said stress from studying and working is also linked with obesity, diabetes and heart and vascular diseases.

According to a recent study by the National Institute of Nutrition, Vietnamese people are consuming more than a healthy body needs.

Each person eats more than 30 kilograms of meat a year and protein consumption per capita has increased from 11 percent to 15 percent over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the average consumption of vegetables and fruits is only 160 grams per day, only half of the amount recommended by health authorities.

Nguyen Thi Lam, deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition, said around 7.3 million people in Vietnam have obesity and the prevalence is expected to increase.

She said that besides a lack of physical exercise, many people consume too much meat and too little vegetables.

"Most children are being fed this way," she said.

IMBALANCED NUTRITION AT SCHOOLS

While children are improperly fed by their parents, nutrition is also not adequately considered at schools despite the fact that many students, especially at primary and secondary schools, are day boarders.

Hoang Thi Binh of Hanoi's Dong Da Street said her slender son always gains weight every summer vacation but loses 4-5 kgs during the school year.

"He is always hungry after school, saying the food at school is boring and insufficient," she said.

Quynh Hoa of Hanoi's Cau Giay Street said she sent her son to a private school which supplies breakfast and lunch.

"He does not have a good appetite at school, saying he can't eat the food there, mostly being fried and grilled," she said. "I told the school to balance the meals but not much has been changed."

Le Bach Mai, deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition, said up to 28 percent of students lack iron, 3 percent lack iodine and many others lack vitamin A.

Nguyen Trong An, deputy director of the Child Care and Protection Department at the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, said school meals should be considered an important issue.

"There has been no official survey on school nutrition," he said.

"Meals at many schools are insufficient or imbalanced. The children will be the workforce in the future and imbalanced nutrition will affect them for sure."

An said the ministry this year would propose the government to approve a VND210 trillion (US$10 billion) plan to improve the height and physique of children.

At the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2013 last November last year, Arthur Erken, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in Vietnam, urged for more investment in the young people.

"Vietnam can and should reap the benefits of the demographic window of opportunity, with one third of its population being below the age of 24," he said.

"Investing in adolescents' and young people's health and quality education will lay a firm foundation for their transition to adulthood and will contribute to the continued socio-economic growth and sustainable development of Vietnam." 

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