Across the world, societies are experiencing unprecedented demographic shifts as migration and aging reshape population landscapes. At the forefront of this global transformation is the Asia-Pacific region, particularly the countries of East Asia. Demographics and Innovation in the Asia-Pacific — a new book edited by APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin, Deputy Director Karen Eggleston, and Joon-Shik Park, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Hallym University in Chuncheon, Korea — provides a multidisciplinary examination of the demographic challenges facing East Asian nations and possible solutions.
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Published in APARC’s in-house series, the book is the second volume resulting from APARC’s Stanford Asia-Pacific Research Innovation project. It collects the research findings of participants at the project’s third conference that was held in South Korea in June 2019.
James Liang, a research professor of economics at Peking University and a leading scholar of demographics and social studies, opened the event by situating the discussion about population structure in the context of the U.S.-China technology race. China is quickly catching up with the United States in the quality of its talent pool and the number of its labor resources. It will continue to outpace and surpass the United States in talent and innovation power in the next 10-20 years, Liang says.
China, however, is on a demographic cliff, facing severe population aging and low fertility rates. Its population of young workers aged 25-44 year-olds is projected to decline much faster and sooner than its overall population, leveling out against the labor and innovation gains the United States makes through the inflow of international talent into U.S. universities and entrepreneurial ventures. To sustain its long-term growth in labor quality and innovation, China will need higher birth rates and additional talent gains through migration, argues Liang.
James Feyrer’s book chapter examines the macroeconomic relationship between workforce demographics and aggregate productivity in Asia. Feyrer confirms that the high-income Asian nations like Japan and Korea, and even some middle-income countries of the region, will no longer enjoy a “demographic dividend” boosting aggregate productivity. However, he finds that the negative consequences of shifting to an older population structure may be less severe than previously projected, and even weakening with time. Feyrer believes this may be a result of improved food security and better overall health experienced by old cohorts in childhood, reinforcing the long-reaching impacts of healthcare on societal well-being.
Joon-Shik Park focused on the specific challenges facing Korean society, where birth rates have dropped severely. These historic declines continue to contribute to rising social and political unevenness across Korean society today. Initially seen most visibly in rural areas and smaller villages, Park’s now sees this unevenness affecting the dynamics of medium-sized towns and more urban areas as well. Korea and other aging societies must find viable solutions to address these issues if they are to prevent demographic divides from hobbling development and innovation, Park says.
Closing the book launch event, APARC Research scholar Kenji Kushida offers perspectives from rapidly aging Japan. where the challenges of shrinking and aging populations, rural-to-urban population distribution, and labor shortages spur advances in technology and innovation. Kushida documents this trend across multiple sectors.
He shows that drone technology has increased the productivity of short-staffed surveying firms, while AI-assisted industrial machines allow a broader range of laborers to work in manufacturing. Even in traditionally human-dominated environments like nursing homes, staff increasingly use robots to help improve the physical and mental well-being of elderly patients. Rather than strictly retarding growth, Kushida makes the case that demographic challenges serve as a catalyst for the development and implementation of new technologies.
As the research collected in Demographics and Innovation in the Asia-Pacific demonstrates, the challenges facing aging Asian societies are complex, but there is reason to look to the future with optimism. As the editors of the volume state in their introduction to the book, “Few concepts are as critical for sustained improvement in living standards as innovation.” New technologies and solutions will be foundational to addressing the challenges of the new demographic frontiers many societies are now approaching.