What Should China Do about Its Aging Population?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Though it has yet to be released, China’s latest ten-year census is certain to confirm what demographers have warned of for years: A labor crisis looms as the fertility rate remains low and the country ages at a dangerous speed. Five years after the country reversed its one-child policy to allow—and encourage—couples to have two children, there is little to suggest it has had the intended effect. While the fertility rate increased slightly the year after the new policy went into effect, it has declined ever since and remains below replacement rate. Economic constraints, insufficient workplace and government support for parents (particularly mothers), and, likely, decades of messaging extolling the benefits of raising a single child have kept birth rates stubbornly low. At the same time, health advances have China’s elderly living longer than ever. In 2000, those 65 and older made up 7 percent of the population; by 2019, that figure had reached 12.57 percent. This demographic imbalance will have major implications for the country’s labor force, along with its ability to grow its economy.

The demographic shift sees China joining the ranks of countless countries across the globe that are struggling with the same issue. The difference, of course, is scale. China might look to Japan or Italy or Finland, which have toyed with everything from loosening immigration guidelines to providing expansive family leave policies and cash bonuses in efforts to replace their labor forces. None of these strategies, of course, have yet to make a dent. In Beijing, meanwhile, policymakers have discussed everything from reducing the legal marriage age to introducing a third-child policy. Is there anything China can do to reverse the trend? And, if it fails, what will the impact be in decades to come? —The Editors


“OK, I admit: I am a piece of that demographic dividend, the low-cost human resource, a birth machine, a bullet, battery, fuel, battery, chives . . . except, a ‘person.’”

This declaration, posted by a young woman on Chinese social media recently, hints at where China’s population is headed in the coming decades.

Three forces are depressing the Chinese birth rate: a smaller number of people are of childbearing age; young people are delaying or forgoing marriage; and among those who do marry, more are having only one child or choosing to be childless.

The first force is a historical inheritance. Births peaked at 25.5 million in 1987, before falling by more than five million in a decade to 20.4 million in 1997. The number declined further in the following years, dropping to below 15 million in 2019. These shrinking birth cohorts are the ones who are or will be entering marriage and childbearing ages. With fewer of them will come fewer births, even if the fertility rate remains stable.

The second and third forces, however, reflect the broad changes occurring in Chinese society. In the first 15 years of the new millennium, the share of never-married young women in their late 20s shot up more than three-fold, from 8.7 percent in 2000 to 27 percent in 2015. The share of never-married women was even higher in cities, accounting for more than one in three (36 percent) among those aged 25 to 29. The long-delayed lifting of the one-child policy, meanwhile, fell far short of its anticipated baby boom. After the policy was relaxed in 2016, a brief increase was followed by birth rates continuing to drop.

With all three forces expected to continue, there is no end for a sustained population decline, which is sure to commence in the coming decade.

China is finally ready to give up its longest-held crown: world’s largest population.

By the time of China’s next decennial population census, in 2030, China’s population size will almost certainly be smaller. The share of the elderly aged 65 and over, currently approaching 12 percent, could shoot up to more than 17 percent. By mid-century, this share could reach 30 percent. By 2050, China’s population could shrink by as much as 125 million from where it stands now.

Turning to the Chinese state for quick “solutions” to raise birth rates is gaining currency. But this would be a return to a treacherous road. For 35 years, China enforced such an extreme birth control policy. It is now abundantly clear that the policy was not only cruel, with its harm falling disproportionally on women, but utterly unnecessary. By normalizing the one-child family, that policy blunder of historical proportions is in part responsible for getting China into the present predicament.

Instead of the Chinese state turning to new policies encouraging births, the conversations ought to focus on how to make China a more gender-equal and family-friendly society. Unlike four decades ago, when young people were forced to give up their reproductive rights to the state, China is an entirely different society today, with 60 percent of the population living in urban areas and female students accounting for more than half of college students. Resorting to state power to make young women birth machines will not work, and will only backfire. In the absence of fundamental transformations of society, what we are seeing today is likely only the start of China’s long demographic downward spiral.

Policies that improve maternal/paternal leave accessibility, and that offer more affordable housing and childcare, tax incentives, and cash bonuses, are likely to increase birthrates in China. So too is messaging that encourages couples to have more than one child and that promotes fathers as equal partners in childrearing. But these types of policies have met with limited success in other parts of the world, and they are unlikely to notably change China’s demographics.

Other more sustainable options include increasing immigration; investing in robotic technologies, especially those that help with elder care; and ultimately moving toward an economy that not only does not depend on population growth but also will be strong even with population decline.

Increasing immigration is not only a matter of loosening immigration requirements. To be sure, immigration to China has grown in recent decades, from 376,000 in 1990, to 508,000 in 2000, to 978,000 in 2015. Yet these numbers are small; immigrants remain a tiny percent of the population of China, from .03 percent in 1990 to .07 percent in 2015. Moreover, even though talent gaps are acute in such fields as quantum science, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors, fields declared vital in China’s national strategic plan Made in China 2025, China issued a mere 1,576 permanent residency cards in 2016, 750 times fewer than the United States, which has only a fraction of China’s population. China’s barriers to attracting global talent are well known, including the significant role of Party politics in the workplace, intense competition, Internet censorship, and environmental degradation. Such conditions make it difficult not only to recruit internationally for long-term work in China but also to recruit back Chinese who have earned college and graduate degrees abroad. Creating workplaces and living environments more attractive to Chinese and non-Chinese talent alike are necessary to increasing the workforce in China.

Raising its relatively low legal retirement age (now between 50 and 60 depending on gender and profession) has also been proposed as a means of addressing China’s shrinking labor force. But even if some individuals continue to work well into their 60s and when possible their 70s, many are not physically or mentally capable of so doing. Already, China depends on non-Chinese to care for its elderly. Further easing immigration restrictions on caregivers from abroad will be necessary going forward. Just as important will be investing in robotic technologies, such as exoskeletons, that can reduce the number of caregivers required to help individuals who cannot care for themselves. Also vital are investments in technologies that enable individuals to retain their independence as long as possible.

Ultimately, increasing population is not a long-term solution. Given climate disruption and countless other environmental challenges, endless population growth is not sustainable. Going forward, it will be important for China, as is true of nations globally, to develop economies that can thrive even in the face of population decline.

The demographic change does not have to be a crisis. It can be an opportunity for the Chinese government to invest in its most undervalued assets—Chinese women—through policymaking and increasing public spending on childcare. China needs to adopt three key policies to mitigate the impact from the looming “population crisis,” including raising the retirement age for both men and women, investing in early childhood education and care-providers, and implementing comprehensive employment protection for women. These policies need to be coordinated to achieve immediate and long-term effects.

First, lifting the retirement age is an immediate solution. The size of the “dependent” populations (those under 15 and over 65) relative to the working population (the age dependency ratio) is an indicator of the economic burden on those supporting the services needed by financially dependent children and the elderly. However, lifting the retirement ago cannot work without additional policies, as Chinese retirees currently provide crucial childcare for their grandchildren.

I conducted interviews between 2017 and 2018 with a group of 82 Chinese women without siblings from across the socioeconomic spectrum. They shared with me their thoughts and feelings about the one- and two-child policies and the effects of each on their careers and families. Regardless of socioeconomic background, grandparents provided a variety of childcare, from live-in around-the-clock care, to school runs, to light supervisory roles in families that could afford nannies and housekeepers. If the government lifts the cap on the retirement age, the childcare deficit will need to be plugged to maintain an active female labor force.

Second, China’s public spending on early childhood care is scandalously low, estimated at 0.4 percent of GDP in 2019. Public subsidized childcare for those ages 0 to 3 is practically non-existent. The government should expand the care infrastructure and build the care economy at the same time. It does not have to be re-inventing the wheel. China has very strong college and university teacher training programs. Providing subsidized early childhood career training will attract a lot of young people to this career path. Well-trained early childhood teachers will boost the confidence of parents in public and private care providers. My research also shows urban families are concerned about the safety regulations for childcare facilities. Child abuse scandals in private kindergartens have exacerbated distrust in the private sector. This kind of distrust can be ameliorated if the government plays a more active and visible role in regulating the private market. Strengthening both public and private childcare will help mothers continue to work, making the most of their enormous productive potential.

Third, my research shows women are grossly put off by a second penalty of additional children on their careers. The current maternity leave and pay legislation is insufficient to protect women’s rights and entitlements in the workplace. My interviewees shared with me a range of discriminatory and misogynist practices they experienced in the workplace. These include a “pregnancy queue,” whereby their employers seek to prevent multiple workers from taking maternity leave at once; gate-keeping career progression opportunities; discourses of “diminished capabilities,” whereby employers use pregnancies and child-rearing as excuses to defer promotions or sideline female employees; age discrimination; micro-regulation; and poor maternity and post-maternity work conditions. If the government wants women to “have it all”—careers and babies—there is an urgent need to introduce comprehensive gender equality legislations to prevent workplace discrimination.

China can’t reverse this trend. And the impact will be immense.

China’s trajectory isn’t unique. It is following in the footsteps of the rest of East Asia. Don’t believe this? Try a challenge: Name the five societies in the world with the lowest fertility rates?

Answer: Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong. (Japan—that perennial example of a rapidly aging society—is practically fecund by comparison, at 10th from the bottom.)

Over the past decades, these governments have tried almost every conceivable policy to raise birth rates. Baby bonuses. More kindergartens. Expanded leave policies. All to no avail.

One reason is that East Asia faces the same challenges that are leading young people around the world to postpone marriage and childbirth: high housing costs and strong pressure for additional years of education. But as Taiwanese sociologist Yen-hsin Alice Cheng notes, conservative social values, traditional gender norms, and low acceptance of extramarital births in East Asia also play a crucial role. On paper, Sweden and Japan have among the world’s best systems of paid paternity leave. Almost 90 percent of Swedish fathers actually take it. Only 7.5 percent of their Japanese counterparts do. Family-friendly work policies are worthless if people don’t actually use them.

Sure, one can certainly fantasize about how Beijing might decide to revive its fading 1950s commitment to socialist gender equality. But the sad truth is that all signs point in exactly the wrong direction. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing is pivoting towards a patriarchal, neo-traditionalist, faux-Confucian ideology to replace once-revolutionary Communist discourse. In this atmosphere, Beijing is far more likely to adopt ham-fisted pro-natalist pressure on young women (or what Frankie Huang has termed “baby quotas”) instead of well-crafted state policies aimed at encouraging more enlightened gender norms. And all this will likely worsen, rather than improve, China’s falling fertility rates.

Of course, as demographer Stuart Gietel-Bastien points out, “the number of people aged 65 and over, in and of itself, is of almost no relevance whatever. It only takes on a significance when attached to a meaning—whether it is ill health, or pensions, or insurance, or some social or legal entitlement.” So too with the declining numbers of children. As long as a society is committed to addressing the effects of demographic change—through delaying retirement ages, cutting benefits, encouraging people to work longer, or supporting liberalized immigration and labor policies to offset a shrinking labor force—there is no reason that a declining population necessarily amounts to a crisis.

The real difficulty is that such policies are unpopular in China, just as elsewhere. And in the highly reactive, stability-obsessed political environment that dominates in Beijing today (a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s), it is far more likely that Chinese leaders will repeatedly punt on actually addressing the looming effects of demographic change (witness the repeated delays in actually raising retirement ages), thereby worsening the actual impact of the eventual effects when they do occur.

And that will be the real crisis.