In her late 20s, she outlines her plans for the evening ahead: having a meal with friends, enjoying some drinks in a bar and then either returning home or going to a club.

Shirley has no qualms about admitting she lives for the moment. So when the question of saving for retirement is raised, the response is predictably curt.

With money in her pocket, life is all about now - but recent government research might give her cause for thought.

The newly established State Family Planning and Population Commission has brought out a report that highlights a long-term demographic trend that could have far-reaching consequences.

China’s population is rapidly ageing.

Statistics vary but UN figures show over 65-year-olds making up 23% of the total population by 2050, as opposed to 7% in 2000.

The effect on the labour market will mean the ratio of working age people to support each person over 65 will change from today’s five to one to three to one by 2050.

This in a country where economic transitions have blurred the once guaranteed pension allowance and where many people have only the one child to support them.

Falling fertility rates

Chinese families are having fewer children than before

‘‘There are several reasons for this happening,’’ explains Siri Tellier, UN Population Fund representative in Beijing. ‘‘Falling fertility rates and longer life expectancy, which in turn may be caused by a combination of increased contraception, continual economic development, and better female education and employment opportunities (all have an effect).’’

Tellier is quick to point out that the one-child policy is a misnomer – actual rates vary from one to four children depending on whether you live in rural or urban areas, whether you are from a minority group and whether your first child was either female or handicapped at birth. The primary reason for the country's ageing population, says Tellier, is falling fertility levels.

‘‘It is difficult to know what would happen if the (one-child) policy were to be adjusted. These days, people clearly want fewer children than they did a few decades ago,’’ she says.

In 1950, the average rate was six children per family, now it is 1.8. In the cities, trends are mirroring the West with both men and women preferring to work first and marry later.

Developments in healthcare mean both lower infant mortality and improved contraception allow for better family planning. Nor is there the need in rural areas to use children as part of the workforce as was the case before mechanisation.

Selective abortions

Further discrepancies exist in relation to the male/female ratio, an issue that was publicly raised by the government in early September. Their estimates put the current birth ratio as being 116.9 boys to 100 girls.

‘‘It is difficult to know what would happen if the (one-child) policy were to be adjusted. These days, people clearly want fewer children than they did a few decades ago’’

Siri Tellier
Beijing representative,
UN Population Fund



Whether the much-hinted at question of selective abortions is to blame is unclear but a traditional preference for male offspring appears to be having an effect. By 2010, there will be 42 million more males than females.

Whereas in the West large-scale immigration is seen as a practical answer to balance an ageing population, the development levels and sheer scale of China simply prohibits similar actions.

‘‘It is worrying for many people, particularly in the countryside. They worry about whether their children can support them, especially with medical costs,’’ says Professor Du Deng, deputy director of the People’s University Population Research Institute.

‘"For many people, there is the question of the 4-2-1 structure," he adds referring to the family structure of four grandparents, two parents and one child who will have to help support not just their own but also their spouses' relatives as well as raise their own family.

"In a country where filial piety is still very strong it could be difficult for everyone."

A demographic bonus

‘‘There is nothing inherently wrong with having an old population … it is only bad if you don’t prepare,’’ says Tellier.

‘‘China will experience a demographic bonus in the coming decade as the number of bread-eaters to breadwinners will fall. This will, however, come to an end. What we'll see instead as the population ages, will be fewer workers leading to fewer children, eventually developing into fewer old people … there does need to be this process of population stability.’’

The projection is that by 2050, China’s total population figure will be declining.

‘‘It is worrying for many people, particularly in the countryside. They worry about whether their children can support them, especially with medical costs’’

Professor Du Deng,
deputy director,
People’s University Population Research Institute

For those that face the so-called 4-2-1 scenario though, the future will be challenging. ‘‘The biggest problem is in the rural areas,’’ says Deng.

‘‘There needs to be a comprehensive expansion of the social security system there. Right now, people rely on remittances from offspring in the cities but that may not be enough, nor are there decent services available where this money can be used.’’

A revamp of the pension system will also be needed to deal with the large number of unmarried men who will most likely never have children. Either a state-run, or more likely, market-based system will still need contributions from the labour force, whose numbers will have decreased in relation to those retired.

Greater women's role

Answers being considered include raising the retirement ages (currently women retire at 55 compared to 60 for men), encouraging greater involvement of women in the labour force and reassessing the length of study time children and students undertake.

‘‘Recent developments show the government is now paying attention to the issue; we can expect to see some changes,’’ says Deng.

For Shirley’s companion, though, the situation is clear.

‘‘Save for retirement? People today are either too busy out enjoying themselves or too busy finding food for tomorrow’s lunch to worry about what will happen in 40 years.’’