All 35 presidential candidates need to address the ageing time bomb, which is facing Sri Lanka today.
The United Nations has identified that Sri Lanka has the oldest population in South Asia and has one of the fastest ageing populations in the world.
In the 1980s, the working-age population greatly outnumbered our senior citizens but today around 13.9 percent or three million over 60s make up the 20.96 million people living in Sri Lanka. At current estimates, that figure will rise to 28.6 percent by 2050, which based on the present population levels, will mean around 5.9 million pensioners, who will need looked after.
With past governments prevaricating over this issue, the necessary structures are not in place to help our people as they grow older. There are several fronts to this problem.
Only one in 10 pensioners receives pensions as the main source of their income, which means that most rely on family support in their old age. By the time they are in their 70s, most senior citizens require some sort of healthcare support, which could involve hospitalisation and certainly a greater dependency on drugs.
Many more people are going to live longer as medical science finds ways to prolong our lives. But that means that by the time they are in their 80s, many more people are going to need full-time healthcare. With more and more women out at work along with their husbands, who will look after our elderly? And as the money runs out as people grow older, who is going to find the money to pay for that additional care?
No one seems to be addressing these problems and yet they are vital to the security of our economy. As the working population shrinks as a percentage of the overall population, where are the taxes going to come from to build more hospitals, provide more care for the elderly and yet keep the country functioning?
As a country, we are already facing labour shortages in areas such as construction, agriculture, health and tourism. Where will we find the workers to sustain our economy? Will it come from importing labour? And how will that affect the delicate balance of our society?
We can’t reverse the ageing population problem and we have a duty to our elderly to provide them with happy and comfortable later years. Yes, some will work longer but that will not compensate for the growing age problem.
So, my challenge to each and every presidential candidate is to answer the following:
- Where will the additional health services come from to help our senior citizens?
- Where will the money come from to help them to live comfortable lives as their savings run out?
- Who will provide the care they need in their later years if their family cannot provide full time care?
- Have you any policies to help those recently retired to maintain a healthy lifestyle with both mental and physical activities to keep them active?
- Where will you find the additional workers to keep our economy afloat?
- How can you utilise those recently retired to take on part-time work within the workforce and contribute to the economy?
Promising the earth is a favourite pastime of politicians at election time. But on this subject, we need concrete answers and practical solutions. Our youth are important, especially because they are the workforce of tomorrow, but our senior citizens are extremely important as the time bomb ticks.
(Milinda Moragoda is a former minister and Pathfinder Foundation founder)