Why slower population growth should not drive us to press panic button

By Du Peng Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/14 17:03:41

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT



Latest figures suggest that China's population is set to peak at 1.442 billion in 2029, beginning a steady decline in the following years. 

The Green Book of Population and Labor released by the China Academy of Social Sciences on January 3 estimates that by the middle of the century, the population would drop to 1.36 billion, which could mean a 200 million decrease in the labor force. If fertility rates remain unchanged, the population could drop to 1.17 billion by 2065. The stagnating working population as well as the rapidly rising number of elderly people could lead to very unfavorable social and economic outcomes, says the report.

Nonetheless, the negative population growth will not necessarily have an adverse impact on the country.

The aging of population is an inevitable global trend marking social and economic development. With advances in healthcare, social security and gender equality in China, it is normal to see the population and labor force gradually decline after reaching a peak.

A large population has indeed provided abundant human resources. But looking at China's four decades of reform and opening-up, the dramatic change has definitely not been driven solely by the huge population, but has come about more as a result of reforms and improvements in economic and social systems as well as education and technology. 

Other than fears of domestic consequences, there are concerns about China's competitive power in the world. The World Population Prospects released by the United Nations in 2017 indicates that India will surpass China in 2024 and become the world's most populous country. Some believe that China's advantage of more hands to work may by then disappear.

These concerns are as well superfluous. With worldwide educational and technical progress, will a vast labor force poll still be needed in India and the global market? Moreover, China can still hold on to its favorable position backed by the continuous optimization of the quality of workforce, the improvement of policies, and the ramping up of technological advantages.

Therefore, the thinking that economic development relies simply on labor growth must be got rid of. Decline in the size of labor requires attention, but is not something one should panic about.

To cope with the shrinking labor force and aging population, the country should be prepared. First, changes in China's population structure must be watched to avoid large fluctuations in a short period of time. 

Second, concrete measures should be taken to fill the human capital gap caused by the dwindling workforce. The country must further develop education to improve the quality of labor, and increase investment in science and technology such as artificial intelligence to replace manpower to an extent. 

Third, increasing fertility is urgent. With the development of society, there does seem to be an ineluctable tendency to have fewer children or stay childless. 

A relaxed family planning policy is one solution, although it can have limited effect. According to data from the National Statistics Bureau, the size of newborn population in the country in 2017 decreased by more than 630,000 compared with the previous year in which the two-child policy was officially implemented, with more than half the total births attributed to the second child.

The family planning policy requires coordination with specific and comprehensive social services. For instance, the country needs to narrow the gap in the distribution of educational resources and improve maternal and child health facilities. 

Only by focusing on these services can people's worries be alleviated and they can help increase fertility rates.

The author is a professor with the Population Development Studies Center, Renmin University of China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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