China: Awakening Giant Developing Solutions to Population Aging

Ning Jackie Zhang, MD, PhD, MPH; Man Guo, PhD; Xiaoying Zheng, MD, PhD


Gerontologist. 2012;52(5):589-596. 

In This Article

Demography of Aging: Salient Growth and Dramatic Demographic Transition

As the largest developing country, the pattern of population aging in China is characterized by five unique features as follows:

1. Largest population, largest aging population

According to the National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBSC, 2011), total population in China reached 1.35 billion at the end of 2011, making China the most populous country on earth (one fifth of the world's population). The peak of population growth will appear around the year 2032 when it is projected to reach 1.5 billion. In China, the number of people aged 60 years and older has risen to 185 million, or approximately 14% of the total population of China and 23% of the world's older population (Kinsella & Velkoff, 2001). The United Nations (UN) estimates that the aging population will grow more than threefold and will account for one third of the national population in 2050, if not earlier. China will thus face the largest aging-society challenge of any country in the world (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs [UNDESA], 2011).

2. Low fertility, high life expectancy, and the highest accelerating aging rate in the world

China's national population census in 2010 showed an increase of 5.84% since the 2000 census (NBSC, 2011). The annual growth rate was 0.5% which is 0.6% lower than the annual growth rate of 1.07% registered between 1990 and 2000.

People between the ages of 0 and 14 accounted for 16.6% of the total population, a 6.29% decline from the year 2000 (NBSC, 2011). However, the age group of 60 and above increased 2.93% from the 2000 census (NBSC, 2011). Starting at 40.8 years in the 1950s, Chinese life expectancy continuously increased from an average of 67.77 years in the 1980s to an estimated 74.84 years in the 2010s (NBSC, 2011). Currently, China is the only country in the world with an older population exceeding 100 million, and this number is increasing at a rate of 3.2% annually (UNDESA, 2007). The changes in age composition of the population clearly demonstrate a demographic shift of population aging (Figure 1). Although the share of the older population in Europe passed 10% in the 1930s, it will not exceed 30% until the 2030s, a century later. The same journey will be traversed by China in just a single generation (Howe & Jackson, 2012).

Figure 1.

Age and gender structure of China, 1950, 2010, 2050, and 2100. Source: UNDESA (2011).

3. Family planning policy

A family planning policy, also called the "one-child policy," was implemented in 1979 as a strategic solution to balance the rapidly growing population and to stimulate economic development. By restricting family size, China's population growth rate and fertility rate dropped dramatically (Hesketh, Lu, & Xing, 2005). It is generally thought that the declining population growth contributed to a national economic surge and a higher standard of living. Two gradual yet inevitable consequences of this policy were population structure changes and an increasingly aging society.

4. Dramatic demographic transition

The dynamics of the age structure in China can be visualized as an evolving pyramid. The trajectory of the changes is shown in Figure 1 (UNDESA, 2011).

In 1950, the demographic structure appeared to be a perfect pyramid. Over the next 50 years, the base of the pyramid will shrink, whereas the middle and top of it became dispersed in the early 21st century. Between 2030 and 2050, the older population will constitute a larger proportion than youngsters and constrict the distribution of the pyramid. It is projected that the 60–64 age group will represent the largest share of population by 2050 (Banister, Bloom, & Rosenberg, 2010) and that by 2100 the population structure will look more like a lighthouse shape in which the aging groups (60+) might be the highest proportion ever. When an only child grows up and marries another only child, this couple is likely to take care of four parents and eight grandparents—without siblings with whom to share the responsibility.

5. Growing old before affluent

The evolving population pyramid not only suggests an enlarging aged population and a shrinking youthful population, but also denotes a decline in the working age population. The age dependence ratio—the number of people not in the labor force (ages 0–14 and aged 65+) per the number of people in the labor force (age 15–64)—is projected to rise substantially in China, from 10 to 42 by 2050 (World Bank, 2011a). As most Chinese stop working at the age of 60, the demographic trend shown here raises considerable alarm about the sources of productive labor before China's per capital income and level of industrialization reach the developed country standard.