With a population of around 70 million in 2023, Thailand is the fourth largest country in terms of population among the ASEAN nations. Despite this, its economy ranks second due to its comparatively high per capita GDP.
Yet, its economic status has slowly been caught up by its neighbors though. One of the most detrimental factors contributing to this trend is its demographic characteristics. Most policy making are also centered around this aspect.
As the fertility rate remain low at about 1.4 and the population kept aging, Thailand has gradually shifted to an aging society. In 2021, It’s population that are 65 years old and beyond is even comparable to that of South Korea at 14.5% and 16.7 respectively, according to an estimate by the UN. The income per head is yet 5 times smaller than that of South Korea.
This is resemblance to the middle income trap some countries are familiar of. However in the case of Thailand, it’s even more destructive and potentially looming a population crisis. The population is still growing though, it is not expected to shrink until the year 2028 to 2030. However, the structure of the demographic is already looking strained with more labor force (16-64) moving to 65 years and beyond. Labor force as a percentage shrink from 69.7% in 2021 to 67.8% in 2025.
Immigration could be a solution to this puzzle. It is also been found that immigration provide substantial value to Thai’s economy, contributing about 7.6% of the workforce and 4.3 – 6.6% of the GDP (2010 est.). Attitude toward immigrant workers are however generally negative citing to a survey done by the the ILO (International Labor Org.). According to the survey, 72% of survey respondent expressed that migrants commit a high number of crimes; 53% of the Thais surveyed said the country does not need low-skilled migrant workers.
This is also the reasons that net migration has been decreasing over the years, despite Thailand being an attractive destination. It would require substantial shift of public’s attitude as well as strong policy making in the this decade to further push the immigration agenda to alleviate the demographic burden.
Interestingly, during the coming decade, the number of households in Thailand is expected to increase significantly, leading to a reduction in the average household size, despite a slow population growth. In 1980, the mean family size was 5.2 persons, this fell to 4.4 in 1990, to 3.1 in 2010, and was last recorded at 3 in 2022 (Population and Housing Census, 2020).
This shift is driven by changing social patterns and internal migration, with nuclear families becoming more prevalent and extended families less common. Urbanization is also continuing to be a major demographic trend, with cities like Surat Thani, Chiang Mai, and Hat Yai experiencing rapid growth alongside Bangkok, the primary focus for urban populations. While the percentage of rural populations has decreased over time, it still stands at nearly 50% in 2020, which is high for middle-income countries according to the World Bank. This suggests that even after the disruption of Covid-19, metropolitan areas will continue to expand and urbanization will persist.
In Thailand, Thai is the dominant ethnic group accounting for about 97.5% of the population according a figure published by the CIA. It can be further divided into four groups, which are the Central Thai (Siamese) of the Central Valley; the Eastern Thai (Lao) of the Northeast (Khorat); the Northern Thai (Lao) of North Thailand; and the Southern Thain (Chao Pak Thai) of peninsular Thailand.
With its mostly Thai-based demographic, the language and religions are also practiced similarly throughout then nation, with Thai being the most spoken and its official language, while Buddhism is the most prevalent.
We will expect more and more cultural diversity in the coming years as Thailand seek more immigration to further fill the demographic gap. Currently Migrant labour from Cambodia, Laos and especially Myanmar, after the junta seized power there, is expected to grow in absolute terms. There is also a potential where refugees from Myanmar surge further if large scale protest broke out in Myanmar. Being its closest neighbors, Thailand will have no choice but take in the migrants at a cost of increased political instability.
According to the latest figure (2021), the population ages 15-64 totaled at around 49.89 million people. This first time in this decade to ever dip below 50 million. However, rising employment rate of woman and policy’s agenda have retained the total labor force at 40 million for the past 9 years, it is unlikely to make further progress as the demographic trend is not reversed.
With the current trajectory, Thailand is likely to increase its retirement age from 60 to 63 or 65, despite the agenda to push government’s official retirement age to 63 is further postponed. It is likely to still be implemented in the coming years as suggested by the cabinet filings and the Labour Protection Act (No. 6) B.E. 2560 introduced in September 2017.
In the coming years, migrant workers will become increasingly crucial for both low-skilled and high-skilled jobs. At present, there is a shortage of high-skilled labor to support the government’s Thailand 4.0 policy, which aims to advance the country’s technology sectors. These skilled labour problems stem in large part from Thailand’s under-performing education system, which ranks poorly both globally and regionally. IMF has ranked Thailand to 56th place out of 64 countries. And the country’s english proficiency has even viewed as “very low” by the EF, giving its ranking of 97 out of 111 countries studied.
Educational reforms in the last two decades have been poorly and inconsistently implemented, and there are currently still no plans for a major overhaul of the system. The ability of the labour force to meet the needs of businesses (in terms of specialist skills) is therefore likely to remain below global standards. In view of this situation, hiring skilled foreign workers will become easier, with the government set to relax visa restrictions during the forecast period, especially for the research and technology sectors. There is a urgent sense of the need to accelerate digital skills training among the labour force and students, but the skill upgrade process will take time to show results.