The aging population in the People’s Republic of China presents a significant problem, with far-reaching implications around both the demography and the political structure of the country (Korwatanasakul et al., 2021). China’s aging population has multiple causes, each leading to a series of consequences that could potentially destabilize the region (Čajková & Čajka, 2021). Therefore, examining the potential strategies and approaches the PRC may use is essential (Zhao et al., 2021).
Causes of China’s Ageing Population
The aging population in China can be attributed to a series of factors. Firstly, the long-standing one-child policy implemented from 1979 to 2015 resulted in a declining birth rate and a smaller proportion of young people (Fang et al., 2020). Additionally, improved healthcare and increased life expectancy have contributed to a higher proportion of elderly citizens. Rapid urbanization and changing societal values have also influenced family dynamics and the preference for smaller families.
Fang et al. (2020, p. 5) focus on the concept of “[f]railty” noting that this “is a biologic syndrome characterized by deteriorating function across a broad spectrum of physiological symptoms”. The authors focus on this issue as the demographics (Fig 1) of the population change. Importantly, it can be easily seen that the distribution of aging individuals leads to a scenario where fewer working-age members of society will be available to support the retiring population.
Figure 1. Fang et al. (2020, p. 3) show the changing population pyramid
For this reason, frailty is increasingly problematic. As an individual ages, they become less likely to be able to work and become more likely to need external care (Feng et al., 2020). As such, the population pyramid is moving towards a state where the government must tax the working population to pay for the continuing social care given to an aging demographic. This places additional stress on individuals in the working population and may exasperate the problem by leading to a lower birthrate as both parents work and do not consider the burden of a child to be economically viable.
Consequences that Follow an Ageing Population
The aging population poses various challenges to the social, economic, and healthcare systems in the PRC. A shrinking workforce could increase the pressure to reduce the level of support for the pension and healthcare systems (Lee, 2020). With fewer workers supporting a larger elderly population, the level of taxation applied to those working will need to increase if the social support network is to be maintained. As a result, the dependency ratio, representing the percentage of retirees compared against the working-age population, is expected to increase significantly. This demographic shift also affects consumer behavior, changing consumption patterns and demands for healthcare services and elderly care. As this occurs, some individuals within society may feel that they are being oppressed by the elderly, which could lead to social unrest.
As such, it is necessary to acknowledge that China’s aging population and the declining birth rate will have significant consequences for the country. The economy will be put under additional strain, and the economic productivity across productivity will decline with a shrinking workforce, potentially leading to slower economic growth (Morrison, 2019). The result may be a development stagnation within China, leading to increased pressure on the government to act. This could lead to an increasing level of political instability in the region.
A resulting increase in the number of dual-working couples may further contribute to the declining birthrate in China (Blyth et al., 2022). Economic necessity and shifting societal norms have made both partners work full-time, leaving less time for child-rearing and household responsibilities. This trend, combined with the challenges of balancing work and family life, leads to the decision to have fewer children or delay starting a family. As a consequence, the birthrate may continue to decrease further.
The persistent reduction in the birth rate exacerbates the demographic challenges caused by an aging population. As the percentage of working individuals decreases, the diminishing ratio of the younger population against the increasingly significant component of aging retired people will result in those young workers struggling to support the growing number of elderly individuals, straining social welfare systems and further impeding economic growth. Furthermore, as the workforce size falls, labor shortages, skill gaps, and decreased innovation will likely become concerns for future generations. Additionally, social systems will face mounting pressure due to reduced enrolment in schools and universities. This will impact the ongoing funding and resources available for education and social programs. With increased pressure to reduce funding, the growing level of education across the population may reverse, leading to further economic problems (Guo et al., 2022).
Overall, China faces the complex interplay of an aging population, a declining birthrate, and its far-reaching consequences. Policymakers must address these challenges to ensure the sustainable development of society and the economy. Efforts to alleviate the strain on social welfare systems, encourage a balance between work and family life, and implement strategies to boost the birthrate are crucial for China’s future well-being. This may necessitate opening the borders and introducing new immigration policies. However, such an approach is not likely to be popular with many people within the government.
Strategies to Address the Ageing Population Challenge
China has implemented several strategies to mitigate the impact of its aging population. One approach is the gradual relaxation of the one-child policy, allowing couples to have two children since 2016. This policy change aims to address the declining birth rate and boost the working-age population in the long run. Additionally, the government has encouraged social support systems, including pension reforms, healthcare reforms, and the development of elderly care facilities. Promoting active aging and intergenerational solidarity programs aims to engage older adults in society and alleviate the burden on healthcare and welfare services.
However, these strategies have not achieved the desired result. Moreover, as Alpermann and Zhan (2019, p. 348) contend, many “Chinese couples [remain] reluctant to take up the opportunity to have a second child, simply because the costs of raising two children seem prohibitive: many families already struggle to invest into their child’s education, and women may face serious hurdles to rejoin the workforce after repeated childbirth”. So while the government seeks to continue to run a policy of population engineering that aims to create an outcome that consistently escapes the policy planners, the people react in a usual economic manner, resulting in many unintended consequences.
With such concerns in mind, we can understand that China’s aging population presents a significant demographic challenge, with implications for social, economic, and healthcare systems. Unfortunately, this may result in increased levels of instability in the region. The causes, including the one-child policy and rising life expectancy, have led to a shrinking workforce and a changing demographic composition. Unfortunately, the policy decisions that have been applied thus far are doing little to change the trajectory of China’s declining birthrate. A demographic shift requires interaction from the government of the PRC, including comprehensive strategies to address the challenges of an aging population. But many issues are more likely to be addressed if a more liberal approach is taken. Unfortunately, as Zhan (2019, p. 348) showed, the central government in China is unlikely to accept a policy that leaves the outcomes of population decisions to the individual families and will likely continue to attempt to engineer solutions that will lead to increasingly problematic results.
The relaxation of the one-child policy, pension and healthcare reforms, and the promotion of active aging are among the strategies that have been promoted to mitigate the impact and foster sustainable development in the face of China’s demographic transition. Yet such strategies fail to consider the dynamic interactions of an aging population and have not addressed the increasing strain that will be placed upon the youth in China in the future. As the Chinese population ages, the working population is less likely to have children, leading to a spiraling increase of the problem into deeper and deeper levels of concern.
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