Taiwan economy: an aging tiger in need of cubs

Reuters

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People throw smoke grenades during the annual Labour Day protest in front of Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, in this May 1, 2015 file picture. The head banner reads, 'shorten working hours; no overfatigue.'
People throw smoke grenades during the annual Labour Day protest in front of Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, in this May 1, 2015 file picture. The head banner reads, 'shorten working hours; no overfatigue.'

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Jason Tsai is among the few in Taiwan with excellent English, but two years after graduating from university the highly sought language skill has failed to secure him a well-paying job.
Tsai has been pulling in an average monthly pay of T$15,000 ($455) through part-time work, below the minimum wage of T$22,000 for college graduates and one-fourth of the retirement-pension received by state employees.
"I cannot afford a place of my own with my low income... All I have been able to find were part-time jobs," the 25-year-old said.
The plight of young workers such as Tsai highlights a serious problem for Taiwan which has gone from a young and vibrant Tiger economy to aging and unsteady in just two generations: the working-age population is not growing fast enough, nor earning nearly enough to pay for their parents' retirement.
As Tsai struggles to find a better paying job in a recession-hit economy, a wave of barely middle-aged mostly government employees are racing to retire on generous taxpayer-funded pensions before these are watered down.
To make matters worse, a government policy designed to protect young workers during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis has created a perverse incentive for employers to lock young workers into a minimum wage.
The dissatisfaction among the youth has boiled over into student protests and has become a hot-button issue for voters as Taiwan goes to the polls next month.
Tsai isn't waiting for politicians to come to the rescue, and is instead looking to move to Japan to secure a better job.
A demonstrator takes part in the annual Labour Day protest in front of Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, in this May 1, 2015 file picture. The head banner reads, 'shorten working hours; no overfatigue'.
A flight of young people in search of greener pastures is the last thing Taiwan needs, especially as its rapidly graying population is diminishing the number of skilled workers required to propel the economy on its next growth phase.
Demographic costs
In fact, the alarming drop in Taiwan's fertility rate to less than 1 per woman - among the lowest in the world - from around 1.7 in 2000, has created a major demographic challenge for policymakers.
As more of today's youth transfer the burden of caring for their parents to the state, government resources are getting stretched to breaking point amid spiraling health-insurance and pension costs.
"Reforms need to be carried out soon or state employee pensions will collapse. The government cannot sustain it for long," Wu Chung-cheng, deputy minister of the civil service ministry, told Reuters.
But fears of a political backlash have discouraged lawmakers from watering down a taxpayer-funded generous average monthly retirement pension of T$60,000, even though a flagging economy can no longer sustain these costs.
A look at some of the numbers makes for glum reading.
Public debt burden is now at a record $550 billion, while pension costs are set to rise to an all-time high of 7.37 percent, or T$147.2 billion in 2016, of the total government budget.
Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je has warned that 10 percent of the city’s budget will go into paying city employee pensions in 2016.
And the pressure on finances continues to grow as state employees rush to lock-in the generous pension. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of retired state employees jumped more than 50 percent to 32,000.
Huang Hui-tsong, (L) a former senior dancer with the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, teaches ballet during a class session in Pingtung, southern Taiwan, in this November 25, 2009 file photo.
The lopsided pension plan is causing resentment among those like Tsai.
"What the state employees have is like a dream that would never come true for our generation," he said.
Youth burden
Still, the dramatic aging of the population means the government will be forced to act sooner rather than later. Official statistics show those 65 and older are growing faster than in most Asian countries, making up 12 percent of the total population of 23 million in 2014.
By some estimates, one in five Taiwanese will be 65 or older by 2025, an unenviable future for an aging Tiger economy and its younger people.
"As Taiwan's population is aging at a fast rate, it is putting a burden on young people who are already pressured by their low wages," said Wu of the civil service ministry.
"Everybody knows that these are big problems facing Taiwan."

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