Depopulation and the Threat of Demographic Disaster

Without access to quality education, especially vocational education, the demographic bonus is at risk of being missed.

The problem depopulation not only affects Japan, South Korea and Singapore, but also China. Have these symptoms also spread to Indonesia?

Japan is a prosperous and advanced country with a culture of hard work, discipline, and admirable ethics. Its industries are advanced, and the per capita income of its citizens is high. The education and healthcare services offered by the country are also good. As a result, the life expectancy of its citizens is higher compared to most other countries.

In Japan, it is very common to find elderly citizens who are still healthy. In terms of demographics, the number of elderly citizens is quite large. Therefore, the national age of Japanese citizens is increasing. On the other hand, the Japanese people's interest in having children is declining, resulting in a decrease in the birth rate. The number of newborns is decreasing, while the number of elderly citizens is increasing.

As a result, Japan's population is aging compared to most other countries.


The number of new births in 2022 will only be 800,000. Very low and this is the first time this has happened. This caused Japan's population to decline by 0.43 percent to only around 124.77 million people. Of this number, 29 percent are aged 65 years and over and 11.6 percent are aged 0-14 years (, 25/1/2023). This situation forces the government to close schools, shops and various other types of public services in small communities or in rural areas.

This poses a serious challenge for Japan in the future. The supply of productive human resources is decreasing, and the cost burden of supporting an aging population that is still healthy is increasing.

A similar situation is happening in Singapore and South Korea, both of which are prosperous and developed countries in Asia. In 2023, the birth rate in South Korea reached a record low of 0.72 percent, which marks a four-year consecutive decline. If this trend continues, it is estimated that in the next 75 years, the population of South Korea will be reduced by half from its current number.

In Singapore, in 2023, the total birth rate for the first time in history will be below 1, specifically 0.97. Similar to Japan and South Korea, the decrease in the birth rate in Singapore coincides with an increasingly aging population composition.

South Korea is known as a developed country. Its industry has been growing rapidly, exporting its technological products throughout the world. Japanese and South Korean automotive and electronic products dominate the world. South Korea even becomes an exporter of defense or military products, as well as cultural products that we know as K-Pop.


Meanwhile, Singapore, despite being a small country, is one of the biggest investors in Indonesia. Singapore does not have oil and gas fields like Indonesia, but Indonesia imports fuel from Singapore refineries. And to further highlight their success, all three countries are known for being relatively clean in terms of corruption. Therefore, it is understandable if their citizens are prosperous, healthy, and live long lives.

However, what is the use of a country that is prosperous, whose people are healthy and live long if its population decreases over time? This is the threat currently being faced by these three countries. Not the threat of war, but the threat of depopulation or demographic disaster.

The phenomenon of depopulation is not only experienced by Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. China with a population of around 1.4 billion has been strictly enforcing the one-child policy for decades, and its birth rate is also very low. According to BBC News Indonesia, in 2023, China's birth rate will be at 0.67 percent, down from the previous 0.75 percent.

Meanwhile, the total population has decreased by around 850,000 people. This is what has caused the Chinese Government to reverse course. The Chinese Government is now encouraging its citizens to have more than one child by providing various incentives and facilities. The aim is to prevent the declining birth rate.


Depopulation in Indonesia?

The demographic issues in some countries above can be used as a lesson for us to arrange our demographic politics in the future. The BPS 2020 survey noted that Indonesia's total birth rate was 2.1 percent, a decrease of 0.39 percent over the past ten years.

This means that we are also experiencing symptoms of depopulation like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and China, but the numbers are still much smaller.

Even the decrease in the total birth rate is appreciated as the success of the Family Planning (KB) program implemented since the early 1970s.

Will Indonesia's depopulation rate also increase? The daily Kompas recently published a headline entitled "Marriage is No Longer a Priority" (8/3/2024).

Quoting BPS, it is stated that the number of marriages in Indonesia continues to decline, at least since 2018 until now. In 2018, there were 2.01 million marriages recorded, which decreased to 1.96 million, then further decreased to 1.78 million (2020), 1.74 million (2021), and 1.70 million (2022).

Meanwhile, the birth rate in 2023 is 2.1 percent, which is still considered ideal for maintaining population balance. According to BKKBN Chairman Hasto Wardoyo, if the total birth rate is too low, it will result in the potential demographic bonus not being maximized.

When the total birth rate drops, the number of young (productive) population will also decrease, while the number of elderly and aged population (non-productive) will actually increase.

In a national context, if this situation occurs, there are concerns that the composition will result in a small number of productive population financing a large number of less/non-productive population. Therefore, even though it is not yet a real threat, we need to establish a roadmap for demographic policies early on.

During Joko Widodo's two terms of government, we often hear the phrase "demographic bonus", which essentially means that we will have an abundant productive-age population that will support the achievement of Indonesia's Gold target in 2045.

However, if the quality of this productive age population is low - in terms of education, competencies, and health status - it is no longer a demographic bonus, but a potential "demographic threat."


Education and competence

Will Indonesia truly become a developed country by 2045? There needs to be a roadmap for improving the quality of life for the millennial generation (Generation Z and Alpha), who will become the determining generation by 2045.

Based on the Indonesian population projection for 2015-2045, based on data from the 2015 Inter-Census Population Survey (Supas), the demographic bonus period will occur between 2012 and 2036.

The period of demographic bonus is significant because countries in this period have a large number of productive-age populations who have the potential to drive high economic growth. The demographic bonus is an important asset for Indonesia to achieve Indonesia Emas 2045, of course, if it can be prepared properly.

Education is an important factor in producing a new generation with the necessary competencies to be competitive at a global level, at the very least, capable of competing at the Southeast Asian level. With wider access to quality higher education, Indonesia's new generation is expected to grow into an outstanding one with the necessary competencies.

Without access to quality education, especially vocational education, the ongoing demographic bonus is at risk of being overlooked, and could even become a demographic burden.

Referring to the 2020 Higher Education Statistics, the number of higher education institutions in Indonesia is 4,593, which should be sufficient to accommodate high school graduates amounting to around 3.7 million per year, but only about 58 percent continue to pursue higher education.


The majority of those who do not continue their education to higher levels are due to economic constraints. Those who do manage to pursue higher education still face the problem of high tuition costs. This is why the gross participation rate of higher education (APK PT) is still relatively low.

Based on data from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology, the Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) of higher education in Indonesia in 2024 is projected to be 39.37 percent, which is below the global average of 40 percent (UNESCO, 2020). In fact, Indonesia's GER is also lower compared to neighboring countries such as Malaysia (43 percent), Thailand (49.29 percent), and Singapore (91.09 percent).

The higher one's level of education, it is believed that the higher their quality is in terms of knowledge and skills to enter the workforce. We can learn from Singapore and South Korea in the process of becoming advanced industrial-based countries.

One of them is to align the education system with the roadmap of industrialization. Industry players are not only required to absorb school graduates, but also encouraged to be involved in planning the educational curriculum.

As an industrialized country, Singapore, South Korea, and other developed countries have easy access to skilled labor from graduates of their own domestic educational institutions, particularly in the industrial and manufacturing sectors.

One lesson that can be learned is the importance of a systematic approach in preparing human resources through high-quality education that is easily accessible to the people, including children from less privileged families. This path must be taken because industrialization requires a workforce with competence.


Climate change and health

In the context of the demographic bonus and the preparation of a new quality generation, health issues need to be a primary concern after education because these two factors are the foundation of nation-building. The health of the new generation is currently facing threats from climate change and global warming.

Research by a number of scientists who are members of the International Panel on Climate Change, a research organization under the umbrella of the United Nations, states that when global warming cannot be prevented by 2050, the Earth's temperature will increase by 2.6 degrees Celsius, assuming that the target of the Paris Agreement 2015 is not achieved.


As a result, sea levels will rise 5-32 centimeters compared to 1990 because icebergs and a number of glaciers melt.

This means that the millennial generation, especially Generation Z (born in 1997 and onwards), is expected to face more frequent extreme heat and flood disasters. This is considering that Indonesia is included in a vulnerable area for climate disasters.

The November 2023 edition of the health journal The Lancet wrote a special report on the impact of climate change on health. It is stated that there are at least two main impacts of climate change on human health. The first is the spread of infectious diseases, and the second is the food crisis.


Djoko Santoso
Professor of Medicine Airlangga University
Chairman of the East Java Province MUI Health Agency