Our demographic sweet spot  


AT the recent 13th National Biotechnology Week (NBW) celebration, where I was awarded as one of seven Filipino Faces of Biotechnology, I spoke about the Philippines’s demographic “sweet spot,” which began in 2015 and would run until 2053. This is the demographic state where the size of a country’s working-age population is relatively larger than its dependents (or those who are too young or too old to work). At this point, a country holds immense potential to achieve breakthrough growth through greater productivity, higher savings rate and increased creativity.

Similar demographics have yielded great dividends throughout history. Up to 50 percent of the per-capita income growth that India achieved since the 1970s is attributable to its shifting age structure. A 1997 World Bank working paper explained that the faster growth rate of the working-age population in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan contributed heavily to the “economic miracles” these East Asian Tigers experienced between 1965 and 1990.

Clearly, favorable demographics are necessary for breakthrough growth, but they are not a sufficient condition. Various studies point to how other factors should be in place, especially a conducive policy environment that ensures the youth are properly nourished, educated and employed.

To reach the prosperity they enjoy today, many developed countries had to first invest heavily in human capital development when they entered their demographic sweet spot. Now that the Philippines has already entered its own sweet spot, it should do the same for its biggest resource—the youth—in terms of education, training, health and housing to be able to reap its demographic dividend.

For instance, there must be massive retraining for our youth, especially during these disruptive times where old jobs disappear and new ones are created constantly. Skill sets in new technologies and innovations must be targeted to meet the country’s changing needs.

One such target area should be biotechnology, which is useful not just for increasing farm productivity, or growing more nutritious foods, but also for combating epidemics and curing catastrophic illnesses like cancer or age-related afflictions like Dementia or Alzheimer’s. Biotechnology could also be useful for synthesizing new materials that emit fewer pollutants into the air and water.

It’s a systemic fault that we haven’t placed enough importance on cutting-edge areas like Biotechnology—or the sciences and engineering disciplines for that matter. We’ve done very little to attract our youth to careers in Science and Technology. I learned at the NBW celebration that the country only has 24 marine scientists, despite having among the largest territorial waters in the world. As a result, foreigners—not Filipinos—benefit from the vast resources we have in our seas.

Look at current policies, fiscal direction, national spending and ask yourself: Are our policymakers and politicians seizing this moment, or is it the usual traditional mode? Is our bureaucracy up to the challenge? Are our institutions responsive? Do our people understand the bonanza on offer?

No single champion or advocate can swing this big deal. It requires the efforts of all sectors—the government, business, the media, academia, civil society—to achieve the goal. It requires a “system” leadership and a networking mind to get support for massive investment in our human capital.

The transition will not be easy, as those nations who achieved transformation had shown. It requires patience and sacrifice. There will be pain and lamentation in the short term. But there will be prosperity and quality living in the long term. In succeeding columns, I’ll propose ways to fund this demographic dream with the least fiscal pain on the working class.


E-mail: [email protected], Facebook and Twitter: @edangara



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