China’s one-child policy has had major consequences for Chinese society. For the final issue of the Far Eastern Economics Review (FEER), Nicholas Eberstadt takes a look at how the population changes have affected China’s labor force, elderly care, unmarriageable men, and the traditional family structure:
China’s explosive economic growth between 1979 and 2008 was historically unprecedented in pace, duration, and scale. A repeat performance over the coming generation is most unlikely for one simple reason: the demographic inputs that facilitated this amazing first act are no longer available.
Over the 1980-2005 generation, China’s working-age population—defined here as the 15- to 64-year-old group—grew by about 2% per annum. Yet over the coming generation, China’s prospective manpower growth rate is zero. By the “medium variant” projections of the United Nations Population Division (UNPD), the 15- to 64-year-old group will be roughly 25 million persons smaller in 2035 than it is today, and by 2035 it would be dropping at a tempo of about 0.7% per year. In fact, by the U.S. Census Bureau’s reckonings, China’s conventionally defined manpower will peak by 2016 and will thereafter commence an accelerating decline. Though these forecasts concern events far in the future, they are more than mere conjecture; virtually everyone who will be part of China’s 15- to 64-year-old-group in the year 2024 is alive today. If current childbearing trajectories continue, by the UNPD’s reckoning, each new generation will be at least 20% smaller than the one before it.
These numbers alone would augur ill for the continuation of rapid economic growth in China, but the situation is even more unfavorable when one considers the shifts in the composition of China’s working-age population. In modern societies, it is the youngest cohorts of the labor force who have the best health, the highest levels of education, the most up-to-date technical skills—and thus the greatest potential to contribute to productivity. In China, however, this cohort has been shrinking for a generation, and stands to shrink still further, in both relative and absolute terms.
Mr. Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and is senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research.