Game changer time: China’s working age population is now in decline

Last year saw a big tipping point in China that went relatively unnoticed: its working age population shrank, kicking off a trend that will carry on over the next 20 years.

The head of China’s national statistics bureau, quoted in the FT, carefully says that “there are different opinions on whether this means that the demographic dividend that has driven growth in China for many years is now coming to an end”, but admits that the trend is “worrying” – all the more so, presumably, since it hadn’t been expected this fast. Here’s HSBC’s co-head of economics, in the same article:

“Most projections … estimated that the decline in the working-age population would start around the middle of this decade. But [these numbers] show it has already happened, which suggests the decline over the next few decades will be faster than expected.”

To see this tipping point in its larger context, it’s worth taking another look at a presentation that David did for the British Council in 2010, available here on Global Dashboard. In it, he notes that the world has now split into three demographic groups:

–          One in which population is stable or shrinking, including Europe and Japan, and in which half of its people will be over 40 in 2015;

–          A second group of countries in which the population peak is in sight, including China and India, and in which half the population will be under 30 in 2015; and

–          A third group that includes the world’s most fragile states, mostly in Africa, where population growth is still rapid – and where half the population will be under 20 in 2015.

Each of these groups faces distinct challenges, he argued. For group 1, it’s how to “grow old gracefully” – not just coping with rapid ageing, but also using their last shot at being ‘rule-makers’ on the global stage. Group 3, meanwhile, faces the challenge of providing jobs for its mushrooming youth bulges, so that demographic change is a springboard for prosperity rather than a driver of anger and instability.

But for countries in group 2, like China, the challenge is especially demanding. They face a balancing act: on one hand, they need to work at home to build the infrastructure needed to underpin the next wave of prosperity, while managing both middle class aspirations and the needs of the poor. But at the same time, they face growing exposure to transboundary threats, and need to figure out where they fit in to managing them – and how this will affect growth strategies at home. No easy task…