For years China has been notorious for its one-child policy, restricting parents to one child per household. The policy was implemented as a type of population control and as an attempt to foster economic growth; however, one of its consequences--albeit an unintended one--is that the proportion of the nation's population which is considered elderly has dramatically and steadily increased over the years.
An elderly boom in response to population control measures
While authorities in China believed that implementing a one-child restriction on the number of children a family could have would lead to significant economic gains, ostensibly because family would not be shackled with the expense of raising multiple children, what they may not have counted on was the long-term effect of such a policy.
Because many Chinese felt that having a son would ensure the continuation of the family name, during the imposition of the one-child policy, it was not uncommon for some couples to resort to infanticide if the first child born to them was a girl. As a consequence the population begins to lean towards being composed primarily of males. This, in turn, meant that there were fewer females available for marriage, and so many of the males, unable to find a mate, themselves failed to reproduce. In many instances the males left the country in order to find spouses elsewhere, reducing the number of tax-paying citizens living and working in China.
As childless males aged, with no children to provide economic security for them, the social net for providing elder care in the country began to feel the strain. In fact, there are approximately 194 million citizens over the age of 60 in China; of these, a significant portion have no children on which they can rely for assistance; they turn instead to the government for assistance and support.
Looking forward to China's future
If the current demographic trend is not reversed, the portion of the population which is considered elderly will grow from 11% today to 31% of the population by the middle of this century. Such a trend is simply not sustainable, given that many of these elderly people will have no offspring to assist with their care and support.
It is the hope of many in the Chinese government that the lifting of the one-child policy will result in a surging birth rate, producing many young workers who will grow up, get jobs, and pay taxes to help support the elderly population. Further--at least in theory--it is hoped that the couples who have multiple children now will not be among those numbered on the public dole when they are elderly.
Whether this will actually be the case remains to be seen, as many couples see no reason to abandon what has become culturally ingrained: the limitation of a couple to a single child. In spite of gradual lifting of restrictions over the last couple of years, Katie Hunt reported for Hong Kong CNN that fewer than expected Chinese couples applied to have a second child.
The Chinese authorities created the one-child policy with the idea that limiting the number of children a couple could have would free up more resources that the couple could use to lift themselves out of poverty. While there is a certain logic behind this thinking, it has proven to be short-sighted, and the Chinese people are beginning to reap the consequences of the policy in the current day.
In response to a surging growth in the proportion of the population that is considered to be elderly, the Chinese governments has lifted the one-child restriction in hopes that fewer elderly people will find themselves turning to the government for support in their old age.
If the current demographic trends do not change, nearly one in three Chinese people will be elderly by 2050. Making matters worse is the fact that many of these elderly people will not have offspring to assist in providing care for them. Only time will tell whether the easing of the one-child restriction will have the intended effect on the Chinese demographic picture.
Hunt, Katie.(January 13, 2015). Two kids? Thanks, but no thanks, say some Chinese. CNN. Available at http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/13/china/china-one-child-policy/index.html. Last visited November 6, 2015.
Yang, Sunny. (November 15, 2013). China Easing One-Child Policy amid Elderly Boom. USA Today. Available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/11/15/china-one-child-policy/3570593/. Last visited November 3, 2015.