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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Perhaps not. But however it evolves in the next century, the family promises to be much different than it is today

By Tim Healy

asia in the new millennium
Mapping the Future The future wealth and size of Asian nations

The 21st Century By Arthur C. Clarke

Asia Trends 2000 The promises and perils of one wired world

The Microchip Silicon will get into everything
The Power As the region prospers, chances for conflict may become greater
Essay by Fidel Ramos Ending repression was easy; now we must defend freedom
The Dynasty It's here to stay
The Classes Many more Asians may escape poverty
The People Democracy in Asia will become increasingly deep-rooted
Essay by Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo Shifts to new paradigms may include the "common good" and spirituality
The Mind Classrooms of the future will be virtually unrecognizable
Essay by Stan Shih The challenge of creating markets in a competitive world
The Body Science will soon deliver miracle cures, designer babies and new dilemmas
The Soul Asia seeks a new cultural identity
Essay by the Dalai Lama Balancing material progress with inner development to achieve true success
The Food Are the pushers of genetically modified edibles out to lunch?
The Vacation Inner and outer space are the destinations of the future
The Design Asia still has a place in the shape of things to come
The Metropolis Sweeping global changes are reshaping urban destinies
The Earth Environmental awareness is growing
The Jobs New and reinvented careers will fire the imagination
The Money The cashless society is on the way
The Investor Globalization and the Net will empower future shareholders and savers
The Sexes Democracy, capitalism and the Internet can lift women to the top
Essay by Marina Mahathir In Malaysia, we should change the way society looks at their roles
The Family The family promises to be much different than it is today
The Economy New ways of working call for new ways of thinking
Essay by Donald Tsang Financial well-being is a responsibility for each nation and the world
The Network The connection will go much deeper

The Asiaweek Round Table on ASEAN in 2020

Celebrations Asia is gearing up

Celebrities How some of the region's most visible personalities intend to welcome the New Year

Millenium Dictionary From pop anthems to dawn sites and midnight nuptials, a guide to 2000

I SUPPOSE I SHOULD be uplifted as I approach my 40th birthday to discover that the ongoing ascendance of the global youth culture - moving inversely to my kinship with it - may be nearing an end. This, at least, is the theory suggested by demographics. In the past, a pyramid shape described age distribution in many societies. Younger people dominated the base of the pyramid, and populations declined smoothly with increased age. In terms of economic and familial support for the elderly, it was the perfect geometric shape: Relatively many young and middle-aged people supported relatively fewer elderly. Youth had strength in numbers and spending power, and many societies celebrated this muscular combination in their popular culture, fashion and media.

The math will change dramatically in the 21st century. Already in Japan, one of the world's oldest countries demographically, 23% of the nation's 126 million people are 60 or older. In 50 years, according to the United Nations, 38% will fall in that category. The same trend is true for virtually all Asian societies. The 14% of people in Hong Kong now 60 and over will rise to 40% by 2050. In Singapore, the numbers are 10% growing to 31%; in Malaysia, 6% up to 21%. In the foreseeable future, mothers will have fewer babies and people will live longer.

This means I will have a great deal of company as I age, and I should be happy about that. My peer group will be the focus of mass marketers, retailers and service providers to an even greater extent than it already is. I'm not just talking about a broader choice of snazzy new walkers. Because of the size and purchasing power of my generation, I expect to be treated to a wide selection of my favorite music ("geriatric rock" it will be called), accorded privileges at the post office and supermarket to jump queues, and allowed to use special moving sidewalks restricted for the elderly. The food I want, the fashion I admire, the movies I long to see - all will be mine. And along with economic influence will come political clout. Already, American presidential candidates gearing up for the 2000 election are spending more time and effort than ever courting the monetary contributions and electoral support of retirees, who are much more likely voters than younger people. (I anticipate political redistricting where representatives are distributed on the basis of maturity rather than geography - truly, a golden age.)

But the dominance of my generation will come at a steep cost. Consider that aging populations must depend on dwindling numbers of working-age people to support them in the 21st century. On average in Asia, there are currently 11 people, potentially, in the workforce for every retiree. By 2050, the number of workers supporting each elderly person in the region will be four. In Japan by the middle of the next century, retirees will have only two employed people working on their behalf. "You can imagine very big pressures on working-age individuals given the burden they may feel from supporting an increasingly large elderly population," says Bienvenido Rola, chief of the Disadvantaged Groups Section of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok. "You may well have a situation where a wage earner is supporting not just his own family but his parents and two sets of grandparents as well." How will this stress manifest itself? Rola, 59, won't guess, but he acknowledges that increased rates of suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse are possible. Possible too is age-based conflict replacing the ethnic, racial and gender-based discord that characterized much of the 20th century. (Imagine a 60-year-old Romeo and 33-year-old Juliet.)

There may be a solution, but it would require a fundamental change in society and, especially, family structure. Godwin Chu is an emeritus senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, a research institute dedicated to exploring the economies and societies of Asian cultures. Chu, 71, has spent many years focusing on China, where the demographics of age may point to an especially acute problem because of the nation's sheer size and its one-child policy in effect since 1976. Nearly one-quarter of China's population will be aged 80 and above by 2050, U.N. demographers predict.

Chu says he believes the next century will see "the passing of the traditional family" in China. Specifically, he expects to see a steady decrease in the kind of filial piety taught by Confucius and espoused throughout the region as a core Asian value. "I believe you'll see an end to the tradition of a child bowing to family authority," says Chu. "The wide extended family will disappear." Chu believes greater economic freedom and opportunity - which encourages young people to move from their family home in search of prosperity - is behind this change, and he doesn't necessarily think it is bad. "The fact is that the extended family was a functional unit in a society where mobility was low," he says. "But that is increasingly not the situation today. Those old values have become dysfunctional, and family relations will have to change."

Societies everywhere are groping for what will replace the old system, Chu says. One possibility is that the traditional family unit will morph into something quite different than it has been, and functional roles will change. The responsibility of parents to guide their children's early development could disappear. "You are already seeing how outside influences like school and peer groups are having enormous effect on children and teenagers," Chu says. "Expect that to continue." And don't forget the impact of mass media on childhood development. Television and now the Internet are becoming ever more influential sources of information, and the media are already key in the transmission of values from society to children.

It does not seem unreasonable to think that a family unit could divide itself neatly by function in the next century. Parents may be required to give over increasing responsibility for child-rearing as they focus on economic sustenance for the family. That task could fall to elderly relatives, which would not be new. But perhaps entirely new social systems - nursing-home-based child-care centers, for example - could emerge to take more formal responsibility for child-rearing. Chu suggests that, far into the future, computers might be developed that become primary agents for teaching children certain socialization skills. Perhaps in 40 years time I will find myself complaining to a computer about the shortcomings of the young generation. Or perhaps I'll criticize the computer itself for its failings in raising my one and only grandchild.


This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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