Facing the Demographic Tidal Wave: Collaborative Solutions for an Aging World

Four elderly Chinese people sitting outdoors. Senior citizens relax on the Duolun Road in Shanghai, China.

In Beijing’s bustling Chaoyang District stands a multi-story building known as the Gonghe Senior Apartments: a 400-bed nursing home for middle-income seniors who are disabled or suffer from dementia. Why is Gonghe unique and why is it worth considering? Because Gonghe is a public-private partnership (PPP), a collaborative organizational structure supported by the District Civil Affairs Bureau Welfare Division that donated the land and building and the nonprofit Yuecheng Senior Living that operates the facility. And because PPPs like Gonghe might just be the right model to address the challenges surrounding elderly care in China as well as in other nations that face a looming burden of population aging.

This was a core message shared by Alan Trager, founder and president of the PPP Initiative Ltd., who spoke at a special workshop organized by Shorenstein APARC’s Asia Health Policy Program (AHPP). Focused on PPPs in health and long-term care in China, the workshop was part of a two-day convening related to the Innovation for Healthy Aging project, a collaborative research project led by APARC Deputy Director and AHPP Director Karen Eggleston that identifies and analyzes productive public-private partnerships advancing healthy aging solutions in East Asia and other regions.

The Innovation for Healthy Aging project is driven by the imperative to respond to a world that is aging rapidly. This demographic transition, reminded Trager at the opening of his talk, is a defining issue of our time, as aging is a multisectoral issue that increases the demand for health care, long-term care, and a large number of other social services. The aging challenge is exacerbated by its convergence with the rising prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), also known as chronic diseases. For while NCDs affect all age groups, they account for the highest burden among the elderly.

China: Ground Zero for Global Aging

Alan Trager in Highly Immersive Classroom Alan Trager discusses health and long-term care in China in the GSB's Highly Immersive Classroom
Alan Trager discusses health and long-term care in China in the GSB's Highly Immersive Classroom (Photo: Noa Ronkin)

The need to advance healthy aging and NCD prevention is a matter of grave concern in China, whose older population is larger than in any other country. Moreover, the aging challenge in China is interwoven with unique social trends. In particular, filial piety—which, for thousands of years, has been a fundamental family value and a mainstay of health and elder care—is under pressure, as young people strive to balance the demands of careers, fewer children per family, and migrating to cities for school and work, without affordable housing or long-term care financing support for their parents and other elderly relatives, who often stay in rural areas.

China’s health system is yet to adapt to the shift in the disease burden and health care needs driven by the aging population. Its existing health insurance programs are insufficient for outpatient management and care of chronic conditions, and as Trager emphasized, there is a lack of investment in training geriatric medicine professionals and incorporating geriatric principles into clinical practice.

How can China meet the high demand for elder care, increase workforce capacity, and promote healthy aging?

The answer, claims Trager, lies in developing multisector, integrated solutions to the challenges posed by population aging. While system-level efforts, such as building the social protection system and sustaining universal health coverage, continue to be led by the government, PPPs can play a major role in capacity building to ensure the sustainability of such systems through the advancement of technology, human resources, and innovation. Trager shared PPP Initiative Ltd.’s recent efforts to develop PPP solutions for aging populations in China and elsewhere. The workshop was held on October 10 at the Stanford GSB’s Highly Immersive Classroom, which is equipped with advanced video conferencing technology that allows participants in Palo Alto and at the Stanford Center at Peking University to collaborate in real-time. Experts from Beijing joined the discussion and followed Trager’s presentation with comments on how to move from awareness to action.

Private Efforts, Public Value

John Donahue, Karen Eggleston, and Richard Zeckhauser in conversation at the entrance to Encina Hall, Stanford.

From left to right: John Donahue, Karen Eggleston, Richard Zeckhauser. (Photo: Thom Holme)

Public-private collaborations—or rather collaborative governance–in China as well as in the United States is the subject of an upcoming volume co-authored by Eggleston with Harvard scholars Richard Zeckhauser and John Donahue. Both Zeckhauser and Donahue joined Eggleston the following day, October 11, at an AHPP-hosted seminar to discuss this upcoming publication, titled Private Roles for Public Goals in China and the United States: Contracting, Collaboration, and Delegation.

Eggleston, Donahue, and Zeckhauser define collaborative governance as private engagement in public tasks on terms of shared discretion, where each partner bears responsibilities for certain areas. Their upcoming book explores public-private collaborations in China and the United States, two countries where public needs require solutions that far outstrip the capacities of their governments alone. Beyond considering merely health and elderly care, the book features research into public and private roles in the governance of multiple other sectors, including education, transport infrastructure, affordable housing, social services, and civil society.

At the seminar, the three scholars reviewed different models of private efforts providing public value, outlined the justifications for collaborative governance, and explained some of the conditions that make such collaborative partnerships productive and valuable. They emphasized the need to account for the unique contexts in China and the United States and to steer clear of one-size-fits-all solutions.

Imperative for the Young Generation

One thing, they all agree, applies to both countries: government collaboration with private entities is inevitable if China and the United States are to achieve their articulated goals and meet rapidly increasing demand for high-end public services.

This sentiment echoed a claim Trager made the preceding day: a tidal wave of noncommunicable diseases in an aging world is approaching us quickly and governments cannot handle it alone. Young people must care about advancing creative solutions to this pressing problem because they will be the ones who will pay for the consequences if we get it wrong.