Recently, several China blogs discussed the topic of China's rapid aging (e.g. Michael Pettis and Mark's China Blog, both apparently drawing on this source).
The prevailing theme: China is heading towards a demographic catastrophe, as the population is aging fast, and the children of the one-child-policy will face a close-to-unbearable burden. Michael Pettis even argued that "by 2030 Chinese will be older than the rapidly aging Europeans, with one of the highest, perhaps the highest, percentage of people over the age of 65 in the world."
But here's the thing: China may be aging fast, and this will undoubtedly cause all sorts of serious problems, but China's fertility rate is by no means extremely low.
Good sources for fertility data are PRB and the CIA. Let's use the CIA data for 2008 and see what it tells us:
- China has a fertility rate of 1.77
- Developed countries with a similar rate: Ireland (1.85), Australia (1.78), Norway (1.78), Denmark (1.74), Finland (1.73), Sweden (1.67), Netherlands (1.66) and UK (1.66)
- Developing countries with a similar rate: Vietnam (1.86), Algeria (1.82), Tunisia (1.73), Iran (1.71), Thailand (1.64), Cuba (1.60)
- Developed countries with a much lower rate: Germany (1.41), Italy (1.30), Spain (1.30), Japan (1.22), South Korea (1.20), Taiwan (1.13), Singapore (1.08), Hong Kong (1.00)
- Developing countries with a much lower rate: Russia (1.40), Ukraine (1.25), all the rest of Eastern Europe (1.2-1.5)
So apparently, China's fertility rate is comparable to or even significantly higher than in most of Europe (with the exception of France), it is much higher than in developing Eastern Europe, Russia, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and it is quite similar to various Asian and North African developing countries.
What does that mean for China's aging society?
Well, it doesn't make it any easier for China to cope with its aging process, but claims that China will be "older than Europe" and perhaps have the "highest percentage" of 65+ seniors in the world are simply wrong:
- Ceteris paribus, fertility rates determine both long-term population growth/decline and long-term aging of a society.
- If a country has a high life-expectancy, it will grow older than other countries with the same fertility rate. China has high life-expectancy for a developing country, but still lags far behind Japan and Western Europe (though apparently, Beijing and Shanghai already have a life-expectancy on par with the US!). Maybe it will catch up over the next 20 years, but there's no reason to assume that it will surpass those countries. So this cannot explain why China should become older than those lower fertility countries with similar or higher life-expectancy.
- Immigration tends to ease aging, emigration worsens it. China has some net emigration, but it is negligible in % terms. Many of the low fertility countries listed above have low immigration or even substantial net emgiration (in particular most of Eastern Europe). So again, there is no reason why China would become older than Eastern European countries with lower fertility and higher net emigration, or older than any of the various countries with at best small net immigration.
- China has a distorted sex ratio: Normally, 1.06 boys are born for every girl. That's why a "stable population fertility ratio" is usually defined as 2.06 (-> 2.06 kids are needed to have 1.0 girls). In China, the necessary ratio may be as high as 2.20-2.25, as some of China's provinces have a strong prefernce for boys and abort huge numbers of females. This means that China's 1.77 fertility rate equals roughly 1.60 in a country with a "normal" sex ratio. This aspect makes China a bit older, but there are still plenty of countries with lower fertility left on the list.
So which countries will most likely remain older than China?
- East Asian countries with lots of cultural similarities to the PRC (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) have the lowest fertility rates worldwide, far lower than the PRC. As they also have some of the highest life-expectancies, and - apart from Hong Kong and Singapore - little net immigration, their populations will almost certainly stay much older than the PRC.
- Most of Eastern Europe (including Russia and Ukraine) will fare even worse, as very low fertility rates go hand in hand with substantial emigration. Based on current trends, these countries will probably become the world's oldest societies quite soon.
- Germany, Italy and Spain will do a bit better, but they also have very low fertility rates. Immigration helps a bit, but only Spain has taken in substantial numbers of immigrants in recent years. Germany in particular has seen very modest net immigration. Therefore, it is very likely that Germany and Italy (and possibly Spain if immigration slows down) will also remain quite a bit older than China.
- Iran, Thailand and Cuba are countries with fertility rates, net emigration and life expectancy similar to China. Therefore, they will age to the same extent that China does (though in Iran and Thailand, this will happen a bit later, as fertility rates came down more recently than in China).
(For an earlier post on the same subject, click here)