Sat, Mar 24, 2012 - Page 9 News List

China’s aging population timebomb

About 150 million only children are struggling to support their parents as life expectancy increases and the number of young adults plummets

By Tania Branigan  /  The Guardian, BEIJING

Illustration: Lance Liu

While hundreds of millions of Chinese families toasted the new year together, 84-year-old He Daxing huddled on the doorstep of his daughter’s home in Chongqing.

On the most important date in the Chinese calendar, not one of his six grown up children — born before the country’s one-child policy was imposed — would take him in.

Filial piety is so embedded here that officials offered to help him sue his offspring when he fell ill after four nights outside: Chinese law requires adults to support their parents. Yet He’s case shows that traditional ideals are under growing pressure in a fast-changing, increasingly individualistic society.

China may soon have more He Da-xings. It faces a soaring number of old people and a shrinking number of young adults, who are also less able — and sometimes less willing — to support their elders.

Life expectancy has soared in China, while fertility has plummeted due to strict birth control policies. In 2009, there were 167 million over-60s, about an eighth of the population. By 2050, there will be 480 million, while the number of young people will have fallen.

“It’s a timebomb,” said Wang Feng (王豐) of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing.

China’s economic miracle has been fueled by its “demographic dividend”: an unusually high proportion of working age citizens. That population bulge is becoming a problem as it ages. In 2000, there were six workers for every over-60. By 2030, there will be barely two.

Other countries are also aging and have far lower birth rates, but China is the first to face the issue before it has developed — and the shift is two to three times as fast.

“China is unique: she is getting older before she has got rich,” said Wang Dewen (王德文) of the World Bank’s China social protection team.

Tens of millions of workers have migrated to the cities, creating an even worse imbalance in rural areas that already suffer low incomes, poor public services and minimal social security.

Most old people there rely on their own labor and their children. China not only needs to support more older people for longer, but to extend support to new parts of society. World Bank researchers point to promising advances, such as the national rural pension scheme and the expansion of health insurance.

China can help deal with increased costs by raising its retirement age; at present, only about one fifth of urban women are still working at 55. Improving education should also raise productivity. Some experts believe such measures will be enough to wipe out the “demographic debt.” Others wonder if China will begin to welcome immigrants.

Wang Feng thinks China has been far too timid, storing up trouble for the future.

“Leaders have ridden the economic boom and largely collected and spent money and built infrastructure — the hardware: railroads, bridges,” he said. “[In future,] they will not have the money to spend, but what is more challenging is the part policymakers have stayed away from: building software — the pensions and healthcare system. That will be critical to social stability and regime legitimacy, but it is much harder to do.”

The current five-year plan is the first to address aging, but Wang Feng said leaders had yet to accept it also meant tackling fertility. Under the “one child policy” — which has several exemptions — the fertility rate has dropped to between 1.5 and 1.8, experts say. That is well below the 2.1 figure required to keep the population stable.

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