China’s demographic issues could pose serious issues for the world’s second-largest economy when the current working-age population reaches retirement. Experts worry if the trend continues, or the population begins shrinking, China may get old before it gets rich.
According to the most recent data from the National Bureau of Statistics, there were 250 million people over 60 years old in China last year, around 18% of the population.
“The impact of Covid has probably exaggerated it, and in coming years the drops probably won’t be so bad, but that downward structural trend is likely to continue,” he said. “The number of new babies born is never going to be that high in future, because the number of childbearing women is declining, and will be declining rapidly (in years to come).”
China’s leaders are very aware of the potential toll an aging population could take, hamstringing the country’s economy just as it is on the verge of becoming the world’s largest, and have been attempting to encourage people to have children — after decades of punishing those who did.
Between 2013 and 2019, the number of people getting married for the first time in China fell by 41%, from 23.8 million to 13.9 million. While the decline is driven in part by demographics — the one-child policy means there are simply less people to marry — there has also been a shift in attitudes towards marriage, especially among young women, some of whom are growing disillusioned with the institution for its role in entrenching gender inequality, experts say.
“With increased education, women gained economic independence, so marriage is no longer a necessity for women as it was in the past,” Wei-Jun Jean Yeung, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore who has studied marriage and family across Asian societies, told CNN last year. “Women now want to pursue self-development and a career for themselves before they get married.”
But gender norms and patriarchal traditions have not caught up with these changes. In China, many men and parents-in-law still expect women to carry out most of the childcare and housework after marriage, even if they have full-time jobs.
“Just putting a poster up to say having two children is a great thing is not enough, it’s nowhere near enough,” said Gietel-Basten, the HKUST demographer, pointing to the economic hit that women still suffer as a result of having children. “There’s just not the social policy support to offset that negative impact.”
The government has also made it more difficult to end existing marriages, with China’s national legislature last year introducing a 30-day “cooling-off” period for people filing for divorce. This was met with widespread criticism, particularly amid growing outcry over domestic violence in China.
Gietel-Basten said pressuring a shrinking population of women to have more children was unlikely to have much effect, however, especially as childlessness, currently rare in China, can be expected to increase to levels seen elsewhere in the region. Instead, the government should be preparing, as some of its neighbors have started doing, for an aging society, to offset potential repercussions.
“Yes the population is aging, and in the future the population will decline, what you need to do is say how can we make the most of the people we have,” he added. “You can do that through increasing productivity, through changes in education, reforms to the pension system, the healthcare system, by investing now to mitigate against bigger issues in the future.”
CNN’s Joshua Berlinger and Nectar Gan contributed reporting.