Inside Story

Defusing China’s demographic timebomb

Will the world’s most populous nation review its ‘one-child policy’ as an ageing society places a strain on the young?

China’s new leadership will soon be confronted by an enormous demographic challenge. The country’s ‘one-child policy’ means not enough babies are being born to support its elderly population.

We are seeing the emergence of the so-called 4:2:1 phenomenon. So you have one single person taking care of two parents and four grandparents. This places [an] immense burden on the single child growing up.

– Andrew Leung, an economist

Around 12 years ago, there were six workers for every retiree, but by the year 2030 it is estimated that there will be just two. By 2050, one-third of China’s population is expected to be aged over 60.

Al Jazeera’s Laura Kyle, reporting from Beijing, says: “For generations, elderly Chinese have been looked after at home by their children. The ‘one-child policy’ is breaking that tradition – with the burden of care too great for many young adults to handle on their own. Now increasing numbers of elderly parents are being sent to [hospices].”

In October, the United Nations urged countries to address the needs of ageing populations after releasing a report entitled Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing.

Some of the key findings of the report are:

  • The ageing phenomenon is happening faster in poorer countries
  • By 2050, four out of five elderly people will be in developing nations
  • Only Japan currently has more than 30 per cent of its population aged over 60
  • By 2050, there will be more than 60 countries with the same demographic
  • Forty-seven per cent of the world’s older men and 24 per cent of older women are still in the labour force
  • Only a third of countries have comprehensive social protection schemes

China has very good planning for the urban population but if you go to rural China, where the vast majority of the people still live below the poverty line, they are still dependent on their family for care.

– Hafiz Khan, from the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing

The plan is the only global agreement for improving older people’s lives and it recommends that:

  • Governments should fight any kind of discrimination against older people
  • The elderly should be able to work for as long as they want
  • They should have the same access to preventive and curative care, as well as rehabilitation as other age groups
  • Older people should also have access to decent housing, receive support if they are care-givers and be free from neglect, abuse and violence

So, how will China and other countries deal with the inevitable challenge of an ageing population?

To discuss this Inside Story, with presenter Tony Harris, is joined by guests: Andrew Leung, an economist, political commentator and former Hong Kong government representative to the UK; Hafiz Khan, a senior lecturer in applied statistics and a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Population Ageing; and Yong Cai, a fellow at the Carolina Population Centre at the University of North Carolina.