Over the course of 70 years, Asia has undergone a dramatic economic transformation—reducing its high poverty levels, making technological advancements, and becoming less reliant on agriculture—developing into the global nucleus for manufacturing and services. This economic transformation was at first spurred by the post-war reconstruction of industry in Japan during the 1950s, and was followed by other East Asian countries, namely Singapore, Republic of Korea and Taiwan, which prospered by exporting technology. Rapid growth continued with the transformation of the Indian and Chinese economies during the late 20th century, when both countries opened their markets to foreign interests. These countries followed different economic trajectories—China sought to attract foreign direct investment into designated industrial zones, which later enabled them to develop their own export-orientated manufacturing industry, while India became an exporter of information technology services.
The upward trajectory of these countries enabled the Asian region to act as a significant contributor to the achievement of a number of Millennium Development Goals; the foremost being the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. Indeed, the top five contributors to this goal were in Asia (India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam).
This resulted in the proportion of people experiencing extreme poverty within the regions of East and South Asia falling from 80% in 1990 to slightly less than 60% in 2010. As a consequence, all Asian countries, apart from Nepal and Afghanistan, have transitioned to middle-income status. The economic rise of Asia is projected to continue into the next 40 years, leading experts to equate the 21st century with the economic juggernaut of Asia.
This meteoric rise, however, comes with a corresponding cost, as many formerly-impoverished Asian countries face the prospect of dealing with rapidly ageing populations due to a decline in the rate of fertility and an improvement in life expectancy. Between 1960 and 2017, life expectancy increased from 44 to 76 years, while the fertility rate declined from 5.7 to 1.69 in China. Although this demographic transition could be perceived as being symptomatic of prosperity in the region coupled with the success of healthcare programs, many policymakers argue that it could potentially pose a challenge to social and economic development.
It is predicted that the number of economically dependent people may outstrip the number of those economically active in East and Southeast Asia. For example, the dependence ratio has been projected to rise from 36% in 2010 to 45% in 2025 in China. Policymakers and experts have, therefore, used ominous metaphors of natural disasters, such as ‘silver tsunami’ and ‘grey dawn,’ to underline the significance of this demographic transition.