Right economic and health policies, as well as changes in mindsets, can help countries turn these challenges into opportunities for human development.
Population ageing happens when older people (typically over 60) account for an increasingly large proportion of the total population. It is the result of declining fertility rates, lower infant mortality and increasing survival at older ages — all triumphs of development.
Developing Asia’s population ageing broadly follows the historical pattern of countries growing older as they become richer. But it is happening at a much greater speed.
Worldwide, older people’s share of population has risen sharply. In 1950, when the world’s population was 2.5 billion, there were 205 million persons over 60. In 2014, there are 868 million people over 60 — nearly 12 per cent of the global population. 
These trends will accelerate. Before the next decade is out, there will be over a billion older people on the planet. Asia’s older people will grow from 453 million in 2012 to 1.26 billion by 2050. In other words, by then one in four Asians will be over 60. 
Proportions matter more than absolute numbers. The demographic structure – or the age structure of a country’s population – directly affects its economic productivity and human development.
“Demographic transition requires completely new approaches to economic planning, health care, retirement policies, living arrangements and inter-generational relations”
In the eight countries that make up South Asia, the percentage of older people in 2012 ranged from 3.8 in Afghanistan to 12.9 in Sri Lanka. India’s 100 million older people make up 8 per cent of its population. All will see this share increase in the coming decades. 
This demographic transition requires completely new approaches to economic planning, health care, retirement policies, living arrangements and inter-generational relations.
The good news: today’s older people are markedly different compared to those even two generations ago. They are healthier and remain active well into their 70s or 80s. This enhances their value to families and society. They are a resource waiting to be harnessed. This was highlighted at a recent conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand, convened by the global charity HelpAge International.
To benefit from this, societies must redesign and realign. Eduardo Klien, regional director of HelpAge International East Asia and Pacific, said economies and societies need to make far-reaching changes in how they are organised to address population ageing and to optimise older people’s contributions.
Governments, civil society, private sector, development donors and the research community all have key roles. The policy window is limited: as Klien stressed, “The next few years is the time to act.” 
Retirement needs rethinking as people enjoy longer and healthier lives. Philip O’Keefe, the World Bank’s lead economist on social protection and labour, noted how Asian countries’ retirement age has not kept up with rising life expectancy. But rather than embarking on the often contentious revision of retirement age, he suggested, countries could gradually ‘blur the line’ between working and stopping it — as Japan, Korea and Singapore did.
Pension schemes and social protection need more attention. According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), less than one third of Asia’s older persons receive any kind of pension. This leaves poorer older people highly vulnerable.
The Chiang Mai conference called for a change in how old age is seen in modern societies. The alarmist media narrative, portraying ageing as a ‘demographic time-bomb’ or ‘silver tsunami’, is not accurate. Nor is this fate inevitable. We must perceive and respond to ageing differently –thus avoiding a self-fulfilling prophecy. 
Ageing has also been a ‘blind spot’ in international development debates. The Millennium Development Goals did not address the impact of population dynamics on any age group. Advocacy groups are trying to raise the profile of ageing in the post-2015 development agenda.
Srinivas Tata, chief of Social Policy and Population section at UNESCAP, sees population ageing as one of the defining challenges and opportunities of the coming decades. “We must ensure that good evidence is generated, everybody’s rights are protected, and sound policy implementation takes place. This is the only way to counter older people being seen as ‘burden’,” he said.
Two recently produced resources can help policy makers and advocacy groups to address much needed policy reforms.
One is the Social Protection Toolbox that UNESCAP unveiled in December 2013. A multi-media platform “to build consensus towards broader and more robust social protection coverage”, it allows users to visually identify gaps at the national level. There are many examples of good policy and practice.  
The other is the Global AgeWatch Index, which ranks countries by how well their ageing populations are faring. Compiled by HelpAge International, it measures performance in four areas: income, health, employment and education, and existence of an ‘enabling environment’ (based on factors like physical safety, civic freedom and access to public transport). 
Global AgeWatch Index 2014, released on 1 October, assessed 96 countries which covered nine out of ten people over 60 worldwide. Norway topped the list, followed by Sweden and Switzerland. The only Asian country among the top 10 was Japan, ranked No 9.
Among South Asian countries, Sri Lanka was placed relatively higher (43), while Bangladesh (60), India (69) and Nepal (70) were in the middle. Pakistan (91) and Afghanistan (96) have a long way to go.
Limited resources need not be a barrier to a country providing for its older citizens, for example through a social pension. The Index highlights how Nepal spends five times as much as India on its social pension relative to GDP, when its GDP per capita is half of India’s.
Indeed, the Index stresses the value of social pensions — which are tax-financed and non-contributory — as key to tackling inequality among older people. It resonates with current calls to ensure that ‘no one is left behind’.
The AgeWatch Index has underlined the need for better data that is comparable, and is disaggregated by age and gender.
As the 2014 report notes, “Good data underpins good policy, but data on older people is often not collected. Data that does exist is often not fully analysed, reported or utilised, which means that many of the issues affecting older people are not addressed by policies and development interventions.”
Population ageing is a ‘demographic revolution’ that cannot be reversed. Countries that think ahead and act early can take advantage of it.
Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-based science writer and development communication consultant. He is also a trustee of SciDev.Net. The views in this column are his own.
 Ageing in the Twenty-First Century: A Celebration and A Challenge. Report by UNFPA and HelpAge International. 2012.
 Older People in Ageing Societies: Burden or Resource? Documentation of HelpAge Asia Pacific Regional Conference 2014.
 Ageing population doesn’t have to be a ‘time bomb’, Asia conference hears. 1 September 2014.
 Social Protection Toolbox: A UN initiative to strengthen social protection in developing countries
 UN ESCAP pioneers platform for expanding social protection. 4 December 2013.