URI demographer Melanie Brasher discusses China census and nation’s aging population

KINGSTON, R.I. – June 10, 2021 – A demographer who specializes in China, Melanie Brasher has long heard the question, “Will China grow old before it grows rich?” With the recent release of China’s 10-year census, that question is resurfacing.

China’s census shows a population that is shrinking and aging. Over the past 10 years, China’s population grew at its slowest pace in decades – showing an annual growth rate of 0.53%, down from 0.57%. In 2020, 12 million babies were born in China, compared to 18 million in 2016.

And the proportion of people 15 to 59 years old, China’s working-age population, which makes up about two thirds of the country, has dropped by 7 percentage points from 2010. During the same time, people 60 and older rose by more than 5 percentage points.

Brasher, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island, says population aging was already occurring in China faster than in Western countries, but the census confirms that it is accelerating.

“Population aging happens because there’s a decline in the birth rate at the same time there’s an increase in life expectancy,” says Brasher. “I think it’s interesting to see that population aging there is now happening faster. Will that change policies? How will it affect China’s pensions system? Will China develop long-term care? Since the census, China has eased family planning restrictions to allow families to have up to three children. I’ll be interested to see if people take advantage of that.”

Brasher, who lived and worked in China for two years before pursuing her Ph.D. at Duke University in 2013, has published widely on China’s demographics, particularly concerning older adults. Her research analyzes large secondary data and sociological frameworks to study intergenerational relations and social factors of health in China and the U.S.

A key factor in the population decline has been strict family planning policies that China has implemented since the 1970s. The lingering effects of China’s one-child policy, implemented in 1979 to control population growth, continue to have consequences, Brasher says.

The policy has skewed the sex ratio at birth, not only reducing the number of people of childbearing age, but especially women. The ratio has somewhat improved from 118 male newborns to every 100 females, to about 111 males, she says.

“There are about 30 million men that are unable to find wives,” says Brasher. “Men who are really at the bottom economically are in trouble. Men who are wealthier and have a good education will be able to find spouses, but people at the bottom less so.

“China’s a very family-oriented society. It’s changing in recent years. But for most people, they can’t imagine a life without getting married or having a child. So, that’s definitely a big impact on them,” she adds. “I study the traditional Chinese family and how it’s changing. Adult children are there to support their parents. So, what happens if your adult child doesn’t have a spouse?”

While China has some unique factors exacerbating population aging – such as the one-child policy – dropping birth rates is a global issue. (Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the U.S. birth rate fell by 4%, the highest single-year decline in 50 years.)

“Around the world, we’re seeing birth rates drop as people become more affluent. And for those who aren’t, they’re dealing with housing and education expenses, causing them to put off having children,” she says. “In recent years, concerns about climate change, income inequality and how to balance work and family have also played a part.”

The census has forced China to relax its family planning policy for a second time in five years. The country eased the one-child policy in 2016 allowing couples up to two children, but after a brief rise in the birth rate, the reform failed to reverse the trend.

“Today, certain people are able to have a third child and not face fines or repercussions. It will be interesting to see how the new policy will affect the birth rate,” she says. “It’s certainly a boon to some people, but I think that small family sizes have gone on so long, combined with world trends, that it’s almost a part of the culture.”

Brasher says factors seen in the U.S. such as couples postponing having children due to career concerns are less an issue in China, where older adults retire sooner and are available to help with childcare. “I think it’s more this idea that, ‘OK, I want my child to succeed in this very competitive society. So, I really should only have one child so I can dedicate a lot of resources to them.’”

If China wants to boost its birth rate, it can look to policies in other countries. Some European countries provide incentives for people to have children, such as national parental leave policies. In the U.S., she says, there’s been talk of expanding subsidies.

In the U.S., population numbers also continue to grow and the birth rate is relatively high compared to other countries, she says. A big part of that is immigration. People who come to the U.S. tend to come from countries with higher birth rates.

“A possible solution for China would be to encourage the migration of women of child-bearing age from nearby countries, especially if you think about all of these men who can’t find wives,” she says. “But China is not willing to do that. Certainly, that’s something that has worked for the U.S., not consciously though. We’re a nation of immigrants and that’s an extra benefit.”