Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Closing Time

Written by on . Published in Searchlight.

As societies around the globe are ageing, migration is becoming a popular trend among retirees. A look at Southeast Asia.

For US-Americans it’s Florida, for Japanese the Thai city Chiang Mai, for Chinese often Cambodia, and for Singaporeans it’s increasingly Bangkok. Some do it for lower costs of living, other for work opportunities, and others again simply for the weather. Worldwide population ageing leads more and more often to migration of elderly workers and retirees. For them, Southeast Asia is both a place of destination and origin.

The population ageing in Southeast Asia is proceeding rapidly. Due to declining birth rates and longer life expectancy the proportion of people over the age of 65 is growing faster than any other age group in the region. The demographic change is occurring faster than in Europe, North America and Japan, yet not as fast as in other parts of East Asia such as China. Within Southeast Asia the rates of change vary greatly. While Singapore and Thailand are viewed as ageing societies since the early 2000s, Cambodia and Laos still have very young populations.

Obviously, demographic change puts a strain on health systems and pension programs. It’s also affecting labor markets and the working environment. Interestingly, many elderly react to these developments by migrating, as the 7th issue of TrendNovation Southeast explains.

Within ageing societies, we’ll see more and more the emergence of so-called “grey collar workers”, a workforce of senior citizens. In Singapore and Thailand it will soon become the fastest growing workforce segment. In Thailand, for instance, around one third of the elderly have to work to support themselves or their families. In Southeast Asia as a whole this figure reaches 60 percent. So, no wonder that the average age of a Thai farmer is nowadays is 51 years.

Within the section of grey collar workers we’ll find the so-called “grentrepreneurs”. Their importance and influence in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world is steadily increasing. Often the names of youngish people such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Sergey Brin of Google come to mind when thinking about entrepreneurs and innovators. According to TrendNovation, however, the real force behind the entrepreneurial economy of Southeast Asia will increasingly be senior citizens. Developments in the United States seem to support this claim: In the US, the highest rate of entrepreneurship is occurring among those between the age of 55 and 64 (

But despite this development, for many grey collar workers in Southeast Asia life and employment in the future will be tough. In Thailand, it’s estimated that about 5.4 percent of the elderly will enter the job market between 2009 and 2019, yet labour demand will increase by only 2.5 percent. Particularly in the formal sector, elderly workers have a difficult stand because they often get replaced by younger workers once they reach the age of 40.

It is, thus, very important that the state ensures the necessary legal protection of its senior citizens in order to prevent age discrimination in the workplace and on the labour market. The public policy responses to the ageing society will also need to include provisions for the continuing education of senior workers to facilitate training and work placement. It’s expected that more and more elderly people will want to enrol in graduate schools or take up short-time course in the next decade to acquire new skills and knowledge.

Within the grey collar populations there is further the danger of the emergence of a digital divide. It will separate those who are technologically savvy and able to utilize new information and communication technology products and services and those who aren’t. Senior workers who are early adopters to new technologies will go ahead in the race for jobs and positions while the rest might fall behind.

The aim of not falling behind is certainly one of the motivations of many elderly workers and retirees who leave their home and migrate. In Singapore, for instance, older people leave the island state and move to neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. There they find employment as highly-skilled professionals, entrepreneurs or investors. In parts of Cambodia and Laos we can observe wealthy Chinese retirees settling.

As TrendNovation points out, such relocation within the Southeast Asian region will become a mainstream in the future. An example of this ongoing trend is the opening of the Luang Prabang corridor along the Thai-Laos boarder provinces.

We can see similar patterns in other parts of the world where certain regions or countries become hubs for the aged. Many US-Americans choose to retire in Florida, Swedes and Germans are sometimes drawn to Phuket, while Japanese often head for Chiang Mai. To what extent this trend of migration is continuing, will depend on, among other things, how well countries, societies and policy makers are able to adapt to the ageing society.

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