NOTICE – Facts of life

Last year’s census data comes out as most of the attention is focused elsewhere. Undoubtedly, demographics rarely grab our attention or make headlines except when an important characteristic, often a perceived imbalance of some sort, reminds us of its underlyings.

Then we realize that we are observing the outcome of events or decisions made long ago. Its effects are never easily reversible and whatever actions we decide on, it will inevitably take a long time to produce effects. It is, in many ways, this long delay that keeps population issues usually in the background, overtaken by more pressing issues.

The lack of immediacy, if one can put it that way, makes demography the poor cousin of the social sciences – rarely forgotten and above all irritating when necessary. But we would be reckless, I believe, to ignore its impact if we are to raise our eyes above the short-term horizon.

As Macau’s economy grew thanks to the casino boom, its population grew rapidly. The boom came, however, when the effects of earlier trends in the birth rate began to be felt. From the 1980s to the turn of the century, Macau experienced a steady and rapid decline in birth rates. At the beginning of the new century, they were about a quarter of what they had been before.

When the “new” economy needed them, the necessary local workers were lacking. Obviously, the only answer was a significant increase in imported workers. Continuing very high rates of economic growth would require an increasing number of non-residents, which raises other social and economic questions, but let’s leave that aside here.

The fact is that the number of locals entering the job market cannot compensate for those leaving it, let alone sustain past growth rates. Indeed, there was a temporary recovery in birth rates at the start of this century, presumably associated with the growing prosperity of the new era of casinos. But the numbers have fallen further in the meantime.

Either way, these additional births will not change the main issues as they enter the labor market in the years to come. In addition, mortality has fallen over the past four decades and life expectancy has increased. The aging of the local population will be an increasingly sensitive issue. When we discuss the new economic pact for the next ten or twenty years, we would be well advised to take into account the demographics at stake.

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