This article was first published at Exante Data’s Money Inside and Out.
Will it overcome its demographic decline?
In a recent post, we described China’s unprecedented success at realizing a demographic dividend starting in the 1990s until around 2010. We discussed the confluence of factors that made this dividend possible. In this post, we look at present conditions and try to discern what is in store for the future. We use our usual approach and look at the three main pillars of wealth creation: Demographics & Health, Innovation & Productivity, Society & Governance.
Demographics & Health
The first thing that is evident is that demographics is no longer a positive vector of economic growth.
The tailwinds created by a falling dependency ratio have died down and are now expected to turn into headwinds (see chart in our first post). The dependency ratio fell between 1970 and 2010 and was a key driver in the country’s GDP acceleration in that it opened a window of opportunity to realize a demographic dividend. China was able to realize that dividend because 1) it had liberalized its economy and opened up to trading with the world, and 2) it had improved its levels of education and infrastructure. As things stand today, the dividend has been fully realized and is behind us. There is instead a risk of a reverse demographic dividend, in which deteriorating demographics create a drag on growth, if China is unable to implement counteracting measures.
This risk is illustrated in the first chart below which shows the Chinese population by age groups. The population aged 15 to 64, aka the working-age population, soared between 1965 and 2015 and is now set to decline, slowly for the next decade but more rapidly thereafter. Meanwhile the population aged 65 and over will more than double between now and 2055. Finally, the youngest group aged 0-14 will taper off for decades to come.
Using the same data, the next chart shows the difference between the number of workers (those aged 15 to 64) and the number of dependents (those aged less than 15 and more than 64). The coming decline is as dramatic as the rise was in past decades. In 2015, there were 636 million more workers than dependents. But by 2055, this figure will fall to 189 million, or about the same as in 1980. Yet during this period, 1980-2055, the total Chinese population will have grown from 1 billion to 1.37 billion. (See in this article how the working-age population of other countries will have evolved between 1960 and 2050).
In addition to the longer term rise in the dependency ratio, China is seeing more recently a decline in its birth rate. China’s total fertility rate (TFR) fell to 1.09 children per woman in 2022, a new low in a recent downtrend that started after 2017. The next chart shows the evolution of the TFR since 1950. Note that it had fallen from over 6.0 to 2.75 before China enacted its one-child policy in 1980. Between 1991 and 2019, the TFR hovered between 1.5 and 2.0 but it fell below 1.5 in 2020 and fell again in 2021 and 2022.Read more