Saying Goodbye to China’s One Child Policy and Aging Population

BY VICTORIA LOO

Over the past decade, the demographic of the world population has always been unbalanced with young children outnumbering elderly people. However, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years of age is rapidly growing, and between 2015 and 2050 it will reach a new high of nearly 714 million of the world population compared to 601 million today.1 It is expected that by the year 2020, people aged 60 years and older will surpass the proportion of children younger than 5 years by 2.5 times.2 Currently, China contains a large portion of the world population over the age of 60 years. The issue of aging in China within the next years will soon escalate, and with its previous One Child Policy, China does not have a large population of youth.

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An old woman in Xiaoyi County, Guangxi. Source: Flickr

As a result, China has recently officially eliminated their one-child policy that has been known as their “Great Wall of family planning” for the past 35 years.3 The elimination of this policy is thought to be a response to China’s aging population, and an attempt to balance the proportion of the population. By the year 2050, 24% of China’s population is expected to be aged 65 or above, which is approximately 331 million people.2 However, due to the previous one child policy, China’s population of individuals aged 20-34 is projected to be 16% of the population.4 This will create a worrisome problem, as China’s elderly population will soon be dependent on the working population. In addition, China may struggle to support the burden of healthcare and social services required by this large percentage of their population.

China’s decision to change the policy indicates a growing worry about its new demographic crisis. By 2030, China will be the world’s most aged society.3 With a rapidly aging population comes the need for a long-term economic plan. As a result of the past 20-year one child policy, China’s labor force has increasingly shrunk due to the small percentage of a younger population.5 This shortage of labor can cause a drop in production, which in turn could possibly lead to an increase in the average wage level. In doing so, China’s competitiveness in the labor-intensive industries could fall. The consequences of China’s aging population can lead to huge implications on their global status and overall national progress. The challenge China must now overcome is to keep its colossal aging population healthy, active, productive, and working in order to ensure the productivity of their population.

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Source: Lindsay Maizland

Healthcare systems must be equipped to provide the necessary health services when populations age and take on different health conditions and diseases. A population with more people over the age of 60 years can also mean more people experiencing a decrease in physical and mental capacity as a part of the process of aging.6 The risk of disease and poor health statuses among the population becomes greater as the elderly are more susceptible to common conditions such as body pains, chronic diseases, diabetes, depression, and dementia. Additionally, many elderly fall into indiscrete disease health states called geriatric syndromes that are a result of factors such as frailty, urinary incontinence, falls, delirium and pressure ulcers.  Many nations struggle to ensure that their health care systems can sustain and treat their new aging population.

One crucial step needed to meet the growing health care needs of an elderly population is the implementation of better systems of long-term care. This can be done by establishing the foundations necessary for a system of long-term care, maintaining a sustainable and appropriately trained healthcare workforce, and ensuring the quality of long-term care. A major obstacle that China may face is a lack of resources and a sustainable health care system framework to respond to geriatric diseases. These diseases, if left untreated, can have significant social and economic implications on China, including additional medical costs if new treatments should develop, social costs of unproductivity, and later costs of informal care.

An area in which China can focus its attention is the current pension fund that was put in place in 1997. Currently this pension plan requires employers to contribute 20 percent of each worker’s wages to social security, while workers must contribute 8 percent of their wages to an individual retirement account. Despite these requirements, the pension reserve level is too low to support the aging population because it only accounts for 2 percent of China’s annual GDP. Therefore, only about one-third of China’s elderly population receives monthly payments from the pension.5 In addition, the benefit level for social services and facilities geared toward the elderly are low and rare. Without government aid to help provide care for the elderly, a large portion of China’s population will be left to find care on its own. Nearly 23 percent of China’s elderly currently cannot fully take care of themselves and require various health services in order to maintain their functionality.5 Therefore, China’s government must acknowledge the growing issue they have at hand. Improvement for social services and programs for the elderly need to be prioritized to ensure that care is given to a large, and soon vulnerable, portion of their population

One way that China can reduce the increase of their shrinking labor force is to encourage their older population to continue to be active, productive workers in society. In fact there have been many occurrences when the older population has provided tremendous benefits and sacrifices to help the younger population. The benefits that come with a growing older population can be beneficial. Older people can still provide significant contributions to their families and societies. For example, in many families the main caretakers of children are the oldest members of the family. The elderly can also take part in activities or services that may require time that working individuals may not be able to do. If opportunities are provided for older generations to continue to contribute to society’s progress, then perhaps China can lessen the burden of their disproportionate population.

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The elderly represent a large proportion of China’s population, which will prove a significant challenge in years to come. Source: timquijano

However, social stigma regarding the elderly often acts as an impediment to the continued involvement of older individuals in society. Many stereotypes wrongfully characterize the elderly, which can lead to harmful marginalization within societies. One example is enforced retirements, and viewing the elderly as less valuable contributions to the workforce and society. A term for these negative attitudes toward elders can be described as “ageism”, which can lead to discrimination against individuals or groups because of their age. The formulation of these attitudes that devalues the worth of the elderly creates a social divider between the young and the old. As a result, many elderly may find themselves prevented from fully participating in social, political, economic, cultural, spiritual, civic, and other activities to which they can bring value and knowledge.

For this reason, one step in the right direction can be to support and embrace older workers. This may require the development of training programs and learning opportunities to see what skills are often overlooked among older citizens, but can still positively impact society. If older people are found to be in poor health or marginalized from participation in society, then their contributions can be greatly undermined.7 Diminishing health among the elderly too often leads to loss of independence and productivity, which can later create an unnecessary burden on individuals, families, and society. The right to the best possible health care should not diminish as we age, just as access to the best health care should not be prevented from the elderly as a result of misconceptions and discrimination towards aging.

As China works toward addressing their aging population, it must keep in mind that in order to continue to benefit from the contributions provided by their older citizens, those elderly need to remain in good health. Therefore quality health care must be provided along with available social services. Since life expectancy will continue to increase over generations, more sustainable long-term systems of care should be maintained to ensure care is continuously provided throughout an individual’s lifetime. In doing so, a source of productivity among the elderly can continue to help China’s society and economy thrive.

China has already taken the first step toward addressing their aging population by eliminating the one child policy. Now China must direct its attention to maintaining the productivity of their current population composed of a large portion of senior citizens until their disproportionate demographic straightens out. It will take many years before the size of the younger generation catches up to the size of the older generation. Until then, China’s elderly will play a large role in shaping the country’s coming years, and will influence China’s status within the global context. While the youth may be commonly referred to as the “future,” the elderly will shape what this future will look like in the coming decade.
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Victoria Loo is a junior in Morse College majoring in Political Science and Economics. She can be contacted at victoria.loo@yale.edu.

References

1 Global Brief for World Health Day 2012. (n.d.) WHO. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/world-health-day/2012/en/.

2 Aging and Health. WHO. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.who.int/ageing/en/.

3 Winsor, Morgan. China’s One-Child Policy Change Will Take Decades To Relieve Economic Pressures Of Aging Population, Experts Say. International Business Times. Web. Oct. 29, 2015.

4 Matharu, Aleesha. China Ends One-Child Policy. But Is It Years Too Late? Catch News. Web. Jan. 12, 2016.

5 Huang, Yanzhong. Population Aging in China: A Mixed Blessing. The Diplomat. Web. Nov. 10, 2013.

6 WHO Study on Global aging and Adult Health (SAGE). WHO. (n.d) Retrieved from http://www.who.int/healthinfo/sage/en/.

7 Why Population aging Matters. National Institute on Aging. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/research/publication/why-population-aging-matters-global-perspective.

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