Thailand’s working-age population seen shrinking 11 pct by 2040, region’s fastest

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Thailand will need to add migrant workers, draw more women into its workforce and delay the retirement age to battle an expected drop of 11 percent in its working-age population by 2040, a World Bank economist says.

The fall is expected to be the fastest experienced by any developing country in Southeast Asia, said Philip O’Keefe, the lead author of a World Bank report on aging published last month.

“If you are to avoid a negative impact on economic growth you either have to mitigate that impact or make the quality of the workforce higher to compensate,” he told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.

Thailand, which is already grappling with a labour shortage, has about 1.3 million registered migrant workers. Many of them, hailing from neighbouring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, work in industries ranging from construction to hospitality.

However, activists put the number of migrants working without documentation much higher, at more than 3 million.

People of working age now make up about 38.7 million, or more than half of Thailand’s population of 66 million, the National Statistics Office says.

Thailand should focus on developing its workforce through education, said O’Keefe, who is a development economist.

The kingdom regularly places at the bottom of regional league tables in standards of secondary and higher education, while proficiency in English is lower than many of its peers, including Malaysia and Singapore.

For years, education in Thailand has been handicapped by a reliance on rote-learning and stress on skills that support basic jobs but do not necessarily ensure survival in a competitive workplace.

Foreign employers and Thai technocrats have long demanded changes that put more stress on critical thinking skills.

School reforms launched by the ruling junta, which took power in 2014, have largely focused on instilling a strong sense of national identity and military-like rigour and discipline.

Thailand, where civil servants must retire at 60, will need to increase spending on existing health and pension systems, O’Keefe added.

“Thailand will need further reforms of the pension system,” he said. (Reporting by Pairat Temphairojana; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Clarence Fernandez)