China’s Achilles Heel


By Leith van Onselen

The Economist today published an interesting article about the demographic time bomb that threatens to derail China’s economic development:

Over the past 30 years, China’s total fertility rate—the number of children a woman can expect to have during her lifetime—has fallen from 2.6, well above the rate needed to hold a population steady, to 1.56, well below that rate (see table). Because very low fertility can become self-reinforcing, with children of one-child families wanting only one child themselves, China now probably faces a long period of ultra-low fertility, regardless of what happens to its one-child policy…

Shanghai reported fertility of just 0.6 in 2010—probably the lowest level anywhere in the world. According to the UN’s population division, the nationwide fertility rate will continue to decline, reaching 1.51 in 2015-20. In contrast, America’s fertility rate is 2.08 and rising…

Between now and 2050 China’s population will fall slightly, from 1.34 billion in 2010 to just under 1.3 billion in 2050. This assumes that fertility starts to recover. If it stays low, the population will dip below 1 billion by 2060…

In 1980 China’s median (the age at which half the population is younger, half older) was 22. That is characteristic of a young developing country. It is now 34.5, more like a rich country and not very different from America’s, which is 37. But China is ageing at an unprecedented pace. Because fewer children are being born as larger generations of adults are getting older, its median age will rise to 49 by 2050, nearly nine years more than America at that point. Some cities will be older still. The Shanghai Population and Family Planning Committee says that more than a third of the city’s population will be over 60 by 2020.

This trend will have profound financial and social consequences. Most obviously, it means China will have a bulge of pensioners before it has developed the means of looking after them. Unlike the rest of the developed world, China will grow old before it gets rich. Currently, 8.2% of China’s total population is over 65… By 2050, China’s share will be 26%.

…rapid ageing … means China faces what is called the “4-2-1 phenomenon”: each only child is responsible for two parents and four grandparents. Even with high savings rates, it seems unlikely that the younger generation will be able or willing to afford such a burden. So most elderly Chinese will be obliged to rely heavily on social-security pensions.

China set up a national pensions fund in 2000, but only about 365m people have a formal pension. And the system is in crisis. The country’s unfunded pension liability is roughly 150% of GDP. Almost half the (separate) pension funds run by provinces are in the red, and local governments have sometimes reneged on payments.

But that is only part of a wider problem. Between 2010 and 2050 China’s workforce will shrink as a share of the population by 11 percentage points, from 72% to 61%—a huge contraction, even allowing for the fact that the workforce share is exceptionally large now. That means China’s old-age dependency ratio (which compares the number of people over 65 with those aged 15 to 64) will soar. At the moment the ratio is 11—roughly half America’s level of 20. But by 2050, China’s old-age ratio will have risen fourfold to 42, surpassing America’s. Even more strikingly, by 2050, the number of people coming towards the end of their working lives (ie, those in their 50s) will have risen by more than 10%. The number of those just setting out (those in their early 20s, who are usually the best educated and most productive members of society) will have halved.

China’s ageing ‘problem’ is an issue that I have tackled a number of times before (here and here). Essentially, China’s demographic headwinds stem from its ‘one child policy’, which was brought into effect in 1979 and is credited with preventing around 400 million births from 1979 to 2010. This policy initially produced a population pyramid optimal to economic growth – that is, where the largest segments of the population were neither young nor old, but in the middle (i.e. working age).


This relationship is shown in the below chart, which maps China’s dependency ratios – i.e. the ratio of the non-working population, both children (< 20 years old) and the elderly (> 65 years old), to the working age population. As you can see in the charts attached below, the precipitous fall in China’s birth rates from the mid-1970s caused a sharp fall in the dependency ratio which, other things equal, increased China’s growth potential.

However, the demographic blessing provided by the one child policy will soon turn into a curse. According to the United Nations, by 2015, China’s dependency ratio will bottom-out and then begin rising continually until 2070.

The number of working aged people to dependents is set to almost halve over the 50 years to 2065, from a peak of 1.9 workers to dependents in 2015 to only 1.0 by 2065 (see second chart below).


With the decline in workers per dependent driven primarily by a sharp increase in the Chinese population aged over 65 years from 2015 (see third chart below).

Whilst demographic shifts are inherently slow moving and less of an immediate concern than other issues afflicting the Chinese economy, such as the over reliance on fixed asset investment or the threat of civil unrest, these longer-term challenges are, nevertheless, important and are likely to alter the path of China’s economic development.

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China Achilles Charts

About the author
Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. He is also a co-founder of MacroBusiness. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.