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Jamaica's population dynamics — Why we should take notice

BRUCE GOLDING

Sunday, March 04, 2018

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Address delivered to Rotary Club of Kingston on Thursday, March 1, 2018.

During the latter half of the last century, many countries were faced with population explosion and had to take deliberate action to reduce the rate of population growth. China, for example, imposed the mandatory one-child policy. Voluntary birth control practices were heavily promoted across the world including here in Jamaica with the establishment of the national family planning programme in the 1960s. At that time, the average number of children per mother had reached 5.8, the population was increasing at an annual rate of almost two per cent, which would have led to a doubling of the population in less than 40 years.

Since that time we have been witnessing, but not taking much notice of, significant changes in our demographics. The planned parenthood efforts, sloganised in the 1990s as “Two is better than too many”, have been sustained. A comparison of the data for the 20-year span between 1996 and 2016 is instructive, even startling. In 1996, our rate of population growth had fallen to one per cent. By 2016, it had plummeted to one-tenth of one per cent. Migration doesn't explain this precipitous decline. In fact, migration numbers have fallen as the main destination countries have tightened their immigration policies.

Birth rate has fallen, people live longer

What accounts for this slowdown in population growth is the dramatic decrease in our birth rate. Although the number of females of childbearing age (15-49) has increased by 15 per cent from 660,000 to 759,000, the number of babies born each year has fallen from 57,000 to 36,000, a decline of 37 per cent. The data for 2017 will soon be published and it is expected that the number of births will further decline considerably but this would be attributable largely to the Zika scare in 2016 and the fear of its possible effects on infected newborns.

The average number of children per mother has fallen from 2.74 in 1996 to 2.02 in 2016 which is below the 2.1 level required to maintain a stable population with a margin for mortality. The reproductive rate has dropped from nine to five per 100 females of childbearing age. The shrinking size of our child population is also reflected in primary school enrolment that has fallen by 20 per cent from 313,591 in 1996 to 251,918 in 2016.

At the same time, people are living longer. Although the total population has increased by only eight per cent, the number of people 65 years and over has risen by 41 per cent from 178,950 in 1996 to 253,100 in 2016. Life expectancy in Jamaica, as measured by the World Health Organization, has risen to 76.2 years, which is above the global average of 71.5 years. Improved medicines, greater health awareness and increased public health services have enabled people to live longer lives. Between 1996 and 2016, the median age of the Jamaican population moved from 23 years to 29 years.

The fall in the birth rate and the increase in life expectancy, together, are significantly altering the age structure of our population. In the next 30 years, the number of people 65 years and older will surpass the number of people under 15 years, the percentage of those over 80 years will increase from two per cent to seven per cent and the median age will jump from 29 years to 42 years.

On the face of it, we should be proud of ourselves. A slower rate of population growth means less population pressure, less overcrowded homes and less increase in the demand for public services. Fewer babies being born means that those that are born are likely to be better cared for and fewer women would have to withdraw from the productive workforce at the same time.

Increased life expectancy is something to be celebrated as it is one of the key indicators by which a country's stage of development is measured. Yet, these demographic trends have serious implications that we cannot afford to ignore.

They are not unique to Jamaica; they are occurring all over the world. Japan's population is actually declining and its workforce is shrinking, posing a serious threat to its future economic growth and forcing it now to start importing large amounts of labour. Several countries in Europe are facing the same dilemma. China has switched from a one-child to a two-child policy because its growth tempo is also in danger.

Demographic time bomb

What has been called the “demographic time bomb” may not be as imminent a threat to Jamaica but the ticking sound is becoming more discernible and the changes we are witnessing have important implications for the society and economy and require proactive national policy planning.

The reduced size of the young population will require that they are better educated, trained and equipped to make up in productivity what we will lose in numbers. The slowdown in population growth means that the domestic market will be less able to support expansion in the production of goods and services and the need to find export markets will become even more pronounced. The increasing cohort of elderly will put pressure on pension schemes, health services and welfare programmes. Working families will find themselves having to meet the cost and bear the burden of caring for aged relatives for longer periods of their lives.

The Survey of Living Conditions conducted in 2012 included, for the first time, a component designed to capture data on the living circumstances of the elderly. It found that 63 per cent were not in receipt of any kind of pension benefit, neither from private pension plans nor the NIS; only 23 per cent were receiving assistance under the Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education; 77 per cent had neither private health insurance nor NI Gold coverage; 72 per cent were suffering from one or more chronic illnesses, hypertension, diabetes and arthritis being the most prevalent; 15 per cent were disabled, mainly from blindness and strokes; and 75 per cent were dependent on some form of medication.

As people are living longer, there is the increasing incidence of dementia and other cognitive disorders which can be even more challenging for them and burdensome for their families to cope with than physical illness.

We must give credit to Professor Denise Eldemire-Shearer who has persistently disturbed our complacency and has been alerting us to this looming reality that, if we continue to ignore it, will become a national crisis. We need to pump more oxygen into her crusade.

Forward planning is crucial

We must ramp up the discussions at the national policy level in anticipation of the challenges that these population dynamics will confront us with and we need to move purposefully to develop the strategies and programmes to respond appropriately. There are fiscal implications over the long term for which we must prepare ourselves. The menu of public health services will have to be reconfigured to deal with the changing profile and needs of the patient population.

We must also ramp up the discussion at the broader public level so that the working population can understand the additional burdens they will face both nationally as taxpayers and pension fund contributors as well as on a personal level in caring for aged family members.

Importantly, we as individuals must be educated to be conscious that we are likely to live longer than our parents did, that there are things we can and should do to be better able to provide for ourselves when we are no longer at a productive stage in our life and that even when we are forced to depend on others to care for us, our preparations would have placed us in a position to provide a contribution to their efforts.

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