Sustaining prosperity while growing old
The global population is becoming older due mainly to fewer children being born, reinforced by people living much longer. China is now home to the largest number of elderly people and their size is increasing faster than in most other aging countries, with the fastest increase happening among the oldest old (aged 80 or above).
Compared to 115 years for France, it will take just 25 years for China's population aged 60 years or above to double from one in 10 persons in 2000 to one in five persons in 2025. China already has about 240 million people aged 60 or above. These trends have heightened worries about China becoming old before becoming rich especially with the onset of its shrinking labor force in 2011.
Can aging also create new opportunities?
Are these fears exaggerated? Why would a country that in 40 years has lifted more than 740 million of its people out of poverty and emerged from being among the poorest countries in the world to becoming the second-largest economy be unable to mitigate the adverse consequences of aging? Given that China's elderly population is increasing by 10 million annually, shouldn't the focus be on how to adjust the economy, health systems, and social institutions fast enough to provide economic security, safety and good quality of life for the growing number of senior citizens? And are there new opportunities that come with aging that could further drive economic development?
We know that it is the productivity of the population rather than its size that largely determines the economic development of a country. China is already accelerating efforts to massively increase the skill attainment of the population, improve the quality and coverage of affordable healthcare and pension systems, as well as shift the economy toward high-end, innovation-driven manufacturing and services. It may thus be well placed to turn aging into a key driver of sustainable development.
Nonetheless, a number of short-term and medium-to-long term actions by the government, the private sector and civil society organizations, especially if well coordinated, would make it easier for the above-painted scenario to be realized in the coming decades.
What is to be done?
First, actions should be taken to reap the potential of new generations of senior citizens. It is a fact that a typical 70-year old in China today is much healthier and skilled than a 70-year old 20 years ago. So, a gradual increase in the retirement age and equal retirement age for men and women as well as full exploitation of the opportunities from growing the already large "silver economy" that caters to the healthcare, learning, mobility, leisure and financial service needs of senior citizens could yield huge longevity dividends. In particular, the expected yearly increase in life expectancy and women's participation in the labor force as the country further modernizes would create room to expand the tax revenue base required for an effective response to aging.
Second, measures should be taken to support members of the younger generations who choose to have more children to do so. The fact that young adults in China marry late and choose to have one or no child is the key reason for an aging society, which is also likely to be the case in the foreseeable future because of the high economic and social costs of bearing and raising children especially for women. Women's almost exclusive responsibility for unpaid care work, coupled with inadequate maternity and paternity leave, lack of flexible working arrangements, and work-life imbalance greatly discourage child rearing.
Key social measures that might be considered, based on lessons from some Scandinavian countries, include weighted tax reductions, childcare subsidies, affordable quality care for children and the elderly, generous parental leave schemes, institution of flexible work arrangements, and policies to empower women and promote more equal share of household work between men and women. These measures have tended to produce better results when targeted well to reduce inequalities between rural and urban areas, regions and sectors. It would also include provision of access to quality reproductive health services to couples suffering from infertility.
Finally, more investment should be made in the younger generations today who will be the older population in the future, particularly in terms of health and education. It is the investment in younger generations that determines active and healthy aging through the life course, and it is the young people that shape future rates of childbearing.
Fostering positive responses to aging
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), as the lead UN agency for population and reproductive health, has consistently supported China's improving policy responses to aging from the early 1980s when it funded the country's first major research on aging. It has more recently stepped up support in response to the intensifying speed and scale of aging in China and more than 30 other countries across the world through a Global Programme on Ageing and Low Fertility. As UNFPA celebrates four decades of cooperation with China in 2019, we will continue to work with governments and other institutions to foster more forward-looking, integrated and positive responses to aging.
Given China's population and development record to date, we are confident that despite its changing age structure, China's population is likely to remain a strong asset for its sustainable development.
The author is resident representative (China) of United Nations Population Fund.