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Aging Before Affluence in China

BEIJING – Just how fast is China’s population aging, and what does a lower proportion of working-age people mean for the country’s economic development? Can – and should – anything be done, particularly to the country’s “one child” policy, to slow the trend?

Nowadays, most demographic predictions for China are based on the country’s total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.8 – unchanged for 20 years. But population-survey data published by the National Bureau of Statistics suggests that the TFR has been lower than 1.5 for many years, and the United Nations’ newly published report, World Fertility Patterns 2009, revises China’s TFR to 1.4 in 2006, placing it among low-fertility countries.

A long period of low fertility means that China’s population is aging and growth in the working-age population is slowing. According to the UN, the working-age population will stop growing in 2015, while the share of the population that is 65 and older will rise to 9.6% (130 million people), up sharply from 6.8% in 2000.

Since the reform period began in the early 1980’s, a large working-age cohort has ensured a sufficient supply of labor and a high saving rate. The declining ratio of the dependent population (children and the elderly) to the working-age population (16-64 years old) contributed 26.8% to per capita GDP growth in 1982-2000. But, according to conservative estimates, the dependency ratio will stop falling in 2013 and then begin rising.