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Tap the opportunities of population ageing

Published:Sunday | February 25, 2024 | 12:09 AM

IF THERE’S one thing in life that’s guaranteed, it is that we will all age. It is an inevitable part of the human life cycle, yet the pace at which our population is ageing is unprecedented, and the implications of this massive demographic shift we’re experiencing present vast opportunity for visionary entrepreneurs and the business minded.

Every person, particularly Jamaicans, should pay attention to the World Health Organization, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and United Nations’ concerted calls to action on population ageing. The big picture is that entrepreneurs need to step up now, because government policy frameworks and action will not be enough to address the issues we’re facing.

Ignoring or downplaying the urgent warnings will have dire consequences for individuals, families, communities, and our society at large.

Take, for example, this call from the IDB in 2020:

“Latin America and the Caribbean are ageing faster than any other region in the world. This trend is driving a sharp rise in the number of older people who need help with activities of daily living. However, most countries in the region offer very limited or no care services for this ageing demographic. Families – and especially women – usually step in to fill the gap.” – Panorama of Ageing and Long-term Care.

There is a lot to process from the IDB’s comprehensive and, quite frankly, sobering overview of the ageing population and long-term care needs in our region. Their work echoes calls from local experts who have for years warned that Jamaica is experiencing a strengthening in the winds of change that drive ageing populations.

The Statistical Institute of Jamaica (Statin) and Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) have produced and promoted decades of data and reports showing increases in urbanisation and migration, declining fertility rates, increased life expectancy, changes in family structure, and economic and labour market conditions which have all worsened population ageing.

Let’s break down the most critical implications, and, for prospective entrepreneurs and social impact entrepreneurs, assess them through the lens of value creation and opportunity seeking.

1. Fragile healthcare infrastructure: Small countries, lower income countries lack adequate healthcare infrastructure and limited access to medical facilities, making it difficult to meet the needs of an ageing population.

2. Limited preventive health and wellness services: We struggle to provide the appropriate and affordable preventative care, chronic disease management and specialised geriatric care which are critical for managing the needs of older adults.

3. Financial constraints: Perhaps one of the most significant impacts is the budgetary constraints at the micro and macro level that hinder the ability of our people and society to pay for and make available to older citizens the care and services they need.

4. Insufficient retirement planning and pensions: Most workers do not have pension plans which will allow them the financial cushioning required post-retirement. In fact, with the majority of the workforce earning modest wages with small allowances for savings and investments, the financial burden of maintaining a decent quality of life after leaving the workforce is a mammoth challenge for the country.

5. Lack of age-friendly infrastructure: Jamaica’s infrastructure has significant limitations especially in the areas of transportation, housing, public spaces and healthcare facilities.

6. Vulnerability to natural disaster and climate change: Our high vulnerability to natural disasters and hurricanes exacerbates the challenges of social and institutional capacity to manage a population ageing at a rapid rate.

7. Inadequate social safety nets and long-term care facilities: Jamaica currently provides very limited social safety nets for the elderly in the way of housing assistance, food assistance, legal aid, financial education, and healthcare.

8. High poverty rates: As poverty rates continue to fluctuate, they remain unacceptably high with the country recording 16.7 per cent in 2021, an increase of almost six percentage points when compared to 2019.

9. Limited policy and planning capacity: As a small country that is still highly indebted, though Jamaica may desire to prioritise planning for the ageing population, there are a myriad of competing challenges and crises demanding the attention and resources of the government, which unfortunately necessitates shifting urgencies.

10. Inadequate social inclusion of the elderly: We have yet to see national policies that promote social inclusion in social, economic and cultural activities, including equitable access to opportunities. There has been limited progress of note in ensuring that we uphold the rights and dignity of older people.

So what’s next? We need visionary entrepreneurs to shore up government’s efforts to address the impending crisis. That’s the big opportunity for 2024 and beyond.

Of note is that a shrinking workforce relative to the number of retirees will result in labour shortages, a smaller tax base and decreased economic productivity, which all negatively impact social bonds, economic growth and sustainability.

The impact on business is negative!

Also important is that population ageing also leads to changes in family dynamics and intergenerational relationships, because older individuals need care and support from their adult children, potentially affecting their career and personal lives.

The data shows that women, in particular, are bearing the lion’s share of the burden. Overall, the challenges affect all of us, though disproportionately. However, the solutions benefit the well-being and sustainability of society as a whole.

One love,

Yaneek Page is the programme lead for Market Entry USA and a certified trainer in entrepreneurship.