Earlier this week, China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported that China’s population has declined over for the first time in 60 years. The decline in population is not a complete surprise. Population containment was the primary goal of the One Child Policy in place from 1980 to 2015, and since the early 1990s, women in China have been having fewer children than needed to sustain the population. But even before the One-Child policy, China’s birth rate was on a downward trend. The birth rate fell from over six to just three children per woman in just 11 years from 1967 to 1978. And apart from a small spike just after the end of the One Child policy, the birth rate continued to decline. decline since 2017. According to various estimates, the total fertility rate in China is now just over one child per woman.
Many people see China’s low birth rate and declining population as a threat to its economic prosperity, assuming the labor force will shrink as social security spending rises and the number of elderly dependants rises as the population ages. Such alarmist reactions are characteristic of discussions about low birth rates and population aging. But while low birth rates and an aging population certainly pose a number of problems, they don’t necessarily spell doom.
unlikely that the birth rate in China will increase significantly in the coming years. Once low fertility has become the norm in one generation, the likelihood that it will increase again in subsequent generations is greatly reduced. We did a study on this topic and called it “low fertility trap“. Mathematically, fewer births in one generation means fewer potential parents in the next. Moreover, people who grow up with fewer siblings and interact less with large families internalize smaller families as “normal” and therefore have smaller families themselves. Each generation also tends to have higher material aspirations than the previous one, but takes longer to reach the same standard of living. In the case of China, the country’s total fertility rate reached what we have postulated as a “non-return rate” of 1.5 children per woman in 2019. Many men struggle to find a mate due to the surplus of men over women – mostly driven by the traditional preference for sons and sex-selective abortion during the one-child policy. Thus, China’s population decline may accelerate in the future as many men remain childless.
The factors behind low birth rates in China appear to be similar to those behind low birth rates elsewhere: more time spent on education and career development; high costs of housing and raising a child; changes in values and expectations related to sexuality, marriage and children; ingrained expectations that women should bear the brunt of household chores; difficulties in reconciling work and family, especially among women. In China, many people of childbearing age face additional pressure as they are the only child to support their aging parents. Thus, young people tend to delay marriage and childbearing, which in turn reduces fertility, and more people explicitly decide to have fewer or no children at all.
We know from low-fertility countries in Asia and Europe that birth-boosting measures, such as a one-time baby bonus, child care subsidy, or paid leave, rarely have more than a fleeting effect on fertility rates because they only superficially affect the factors leading to low birth rates. And so far, China seems to have a similar experience: despite the implementation of the policy of two and then three children, a number of new initiatives and promotion of childbearing, the birth rate continues to fall. But even if the birth rate is unlikely to rise again, in China or elsewhere, this should not spell disaster.
Concerns about the population Aging is often driven by the misconception that older people are uniformly sick, dependent, and unproductive. In fact, the average level of health for people over 60 has improved significantly in recent decades. And although the risk of health problems increases with age, especially in the second half of life, most people over 60 have a high level of functioning. In 2020, just 8 percent of people in this age group in China reported difficulty performing daily activities such as getting dressed or cooking, up from 12 percent in 2011. Improvements in education, living conditions, and access to healthcare were among the The main factors contributing to this decline. Moreover, a shrinking workforce is unlikely to threaten economic growth, as new technologies can take on more tasks.
The low birth rate presents not only problems for China, but also opportunities. Low fertility and declining populations can reduce overpopulation and resource use, and make it more feasible to achieve climate goals and reduce pollution. Low fertility makes it easier to reduce poverty because more resources can be invested in each child born. Increasing competition for labor can lead to higher wages and working conditions. A low birth rate gives women the freedom to invest their time, energy, and talent in other things besides childbearing, and therefore helps to improve the position of women in society. An older population can also help reduce violence and crime.