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People here want a higher retirement age

Governments in much of the world face the daunting prospect of fierce opposition to raising retirement ages, but in Asia, much of the population wants to see increases.

"If there is a mandatory retirement age, we need to rethink ... whether people support that," Donald Kanak, chairman of Prudential in Asia, told the Milken Institute's Asia Summit earlier this month.

"Whereas we've seen some European countries go into demonstrations when the retirement age was changed relatively small amounts … [within Asia], actually we see a remarkable degree of support," he added.

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Kanak cited a study by the Global Aging Institute, published in September, which found that in six Asian nations - Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and South Korea - more than 50 percent of survey respondents believed their government should raise the retirement age.

The phone survey was weighted to be nationally representative based on each country's census data, although some countries' results were skewed toward urban residents.

Although the Global Aging Institute didn't expand on the reasons Asians were more willing to accept higher retirement ages, reasons may vary from financial concerns to a desire to remain active or to avoid burdening children, who in Asia traditionally support their parents in their old age.

"We want to remain independent as much as we can," Jacqueline Wong, CEO of Temasek Trust, which oversees the philanthropic arm of Singapore's sovereign wealth fund Temasek, noted at the Milken conference. "[We want] to feel you have a purpose and you're contributing."

That willingness to accept a higher retirement age stands in stark contrast to Europe, where efforts to raise the bar meet with loud protests. In April, for example, airlines flying in and out of France were forced to cancel hundreds of flights after controllers went on strike over plans to raise the retirement age to 59 from 57.

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Fast-aging populations are a policy concern globally, but demographics may become a particularly acute problem in Asia, where societies are getting older even faster than many Western countries. The number of Asians over the age of 60 is expected to hit 1.2 billion by 2050, compared to 450 million in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. That compares with a total current population in the U.S. of around 320 million.

The European Commission estimates that by 2025 more than 20 percent of Europeans will be 65 or over; that compares with expectations that around 25 percent of people in Singapore will be aged 65 or above by 2030.

Kanak noted that U.N. data indicate that it's expected to take the U.K. 77 years for the percentage of the population over the age of 65 to rise from 10 percent to 20 percent, while for countries including South Korea, Singapore, Cambodia, China and Thailand, that same transition is expected to take less than 20 years.

Out of 55 countries, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, and South Korea are expected to experience the largest declines in working-age population over the next decade, a Moody's report noted last year. That's a trend that can leave countries facing labor shortages, not least in professions related to caring for the elderly.

But even in Asian countries with growing working populations, such as Thailand and Vietnam, people are living longer, meaning the over-65 set is also increasing rapidly, Kanak noted.

Those longer - and often healthier - lives can offer some good reasons to move back retirement ages.

Some countries have already taken steps to address the issue. For example, from around 2009, Singapore began tightening the rules on lump-sum withdrawals from its retirement savings program, the Central Provident Fund (CPF), raising the age from 55 to 65 within the next couple of years. That followed a sea change in life expectancies: The average life expectancy in Singapore in 1957 was around 61 years, while in 2012, it had increased to 82.3 years, according to government data.

In Japan, which with more than a quarter of its population already over the age of 65 is often the poster child for aging societies, studies indicate people remain healthier and relatively active longer than retirement ages suggest.

In a study that followed 6,000 people over a 25-year period, about 80 percent stayed healthy until their mid-70s before seeing a gradual decline in their ability to care for themselves, noted Hiroko Akiyama, a professor at the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Tokyo, at the conference.

"If most of the people stay healthy until 80, that's really changed the future picture," she said. "They can join the labor force and also they can control their costs."

But she's less interested in seeing a new retirement age.

"Raising the mandatory retirement age is not a very good policy," Akiyama said. "The government, I think, [should] create a flexible scheme of employment system, so all diverse people can join the labor force. "

That's an idea that appears to be catching on with Asia's workers.

"In China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, young and midlife adults are less likely than the elderly to agree that people should 'retire at a fixed age and not work again' or that they should 'work as long as they are able' — and more likely to agree that they should 'be free to start and stop working whenever they are able and willing'," the survey from the Global Aging Institute found.

The study found that in nine Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, Singapore and South Korea, more than 50 percent of current workers - and in some cases more than 70 percent - expect to retire at age 60 or later.