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China's 222 million seniors may reshape the world

For decades, Nestle has tried to get its infant milk powder into the hands of China's new mothers with promises of brighter, healthier babies.

Now it's trying to do the same for the elderly. Last week, the company launched "Nestle YIYANG Fuel for brainTM senior milk powder", a formula designed to help China's seniors "refuel their brains and start a new smart life".

With 222 million people over age 60, China is home to the world's largest population of seniors, and their economic clout is set to surge in the years ahead. By one estimate, the value of products and services geared towards them may reach 33 per cent of gross domestic product by 2050.

If that trend holds, caring for seniors will be China's dominant industry by the middle of the century, and old folk will be its defining demographic. That presents plenty of challenges for the government - but also some major opportunities for business.

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Seniors are already playing a key role in shifting China's economy away from exports and towards consumption. Mr Fan Min, president of China's biggest online travel site Ctrip, predicts they will be the primary drivers of the country's tourism market within a decade. About five million of them are travelling overseas annually, with that number expected to more than double by 2030. As they venture out, the travel industry is adjusting to their demands by offering more group tours and cheaper accommodation, for example.

And it's not just tourism: In recent years, businesses ranging from car companies to online marketplaces have built features marketed to China's elderly.

Healthcare is another industry that may be transformed. Unlike Japan and Western Europe, China is ageing before it has grown rich enough to develop the institutions - such as nursing homes - needed to sustain a large senior population. Increasingly, the private sector is stepping in.

For those who can't afford to travel overseas, private preventative care is becoming much more common. Elsewhere, companies are developing "smart care" products, in which Internet-connected devices track the health of customers. Beijing is expanding a programme that uses a discount shopping card to monitor seniors while applying data analytics to anticipate their needs.

Nestle clearly understands these trends. At the launch of its new senior milk powder, a company official told the press: "As an old Chinese saying goes, 'Diet cures more than the doctors.' " In the long term, that attitude - combined with investments in health-focused artificial intelligence and big data by companies such as Alibaba Group Holding and Baidu - may well reshape the healthcare industry, both in China and globally.

But the area where China will have the biggest influence on the market for senior services will likely be housing. As of 2015, China had an average of only 26 nursing beds for every 1,000 seniors. Over the coming decades, it's unlikely that the government will be able to build - much less staff - nearly enough facilities to meet the demands of its growing elderly population. As a result, it will need to develop new and more creative models for senior care.

That might mean more automation (there's at least one robotics pilot programme in Hangzhou). It could mean home care that's supported by a network of Internet-dispatched delivery services, especially for food. And it will surely mean an expansion of smart monitors and technology to interpret the data they collect.

Given the size of the potential market, there's reason for optimism that China's entrepreneurs can figure out low-cost models that work at home - and quite possibly overseas.

For China's current generation of seniors, having come of age at a time of global isolation and domestic hardship, that's a level of influence few could have imagined in their youth.

BLOOMBERG VIEW

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'China's 222 million seniors may reshape the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe