April 28, 2004
Aging Or Sex Ratio Bigger Demographic Problem For China?

Richard Jackson and Neil Howe have written an excellent report about demographic trends for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled The Graying of the Middle Kingdom.

CHINA IS ABOUT TO UNDERGO A STUNNING DEMOGRAPHIC TRANSFORMATION. Today, China is still a young society. In 2004, the elderly—here defined as adults aged 60 and over—make up just 11 percent of the population. By 2040, however, the UN projects that the share will rise to 28 percent, a larger elder share than it projects for the United States.(See Figure 1.) In absolute numbers, the magnitude of China’s coming age wave is staggering. By 2040, assuming current demographic trends continue, there will be 397 million Chinese elders, which is more than the total current population of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.

China's shift from a younger to older population is far more rapid than has been occurring in Western nations.

The forces behind China’s demographic transformation—falling fertility and rising longevity—are causing populations to age throughout the world. China’s aging, however, is occurring with unusual speed. In Europe, the elder share of the population passed 10 percent in the 1930s and will not reach 30 percent until the 2030s, a century later. China will traverse the same distance in a single generation. How China navigates its demographic transformation will go a long way toward determining whether it achieves its aspiration of becoming a prosperous and stable developed country. In the near term, while its population is still young and growing, China must rush to modernize its economy and raise living standards. In the long term, it must find ways to care for a much larger number of dependent elderly without overburdening taxpayers or overwhelming families.

China will have a higher percentage of elderly than the United States will by 2040.

Elderly (Aged 60 & Over) as a Percent of the Population

China US

There is one really big caveat that ought to be kept in mind when talking about the elderly in the year 2040: at least some of the ideas proposed by Aubrey de Grey as Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) will be developed and widely used by the year 2040. A 60 year old body will be younger in 2040 than a 60 year old body is today. Methods of carrying out aging reversal will allow people to remain economically productive for decades longer.

Declining birthrates and the migration of children to cities are undermining the traditional role of children as the supporters and care-givers for the elderly.

The biggest problem, however, is that most of today’s workers—and hence most of tomorrow’s retirees— have no pension or health-care coverage at all. The great majority of Chinese continue to rely on the traditional form of old-age insurance: children. But as birthrates decline and urbanization breaks up extended families, this informal safety net is beginning to unravel. In China, demographers call it the “4-2-1 problem,” a reference to the fact that in many families one child will be expected to support two aged parents and four grandparents.

China is going to have fewer workers to elderly than the United States of America by 2040.

Aged Support Ratio

2000 2040
US 3.9 2.3
China 6.4 2.0
South Korea 6.2 1.5
EU15 2.8 1.5
Singapore 6.4 1.5
Hong Kong 4.8 1.4
Japan 2.7 1.1

The UN projects that the size of China's working age population will peak in 2015. The rate of decline after that point depends on future fertility rates that are hard to predict.

100 Total Percentage Decline in the Working-Age Population: 2005-50

Constant Fertility Scenario: -18%
Low Variant Scenario: -35%

Pension coverage in China is largely limited to urban workers in the state-owned sector of the economy. In 2002, the “basic pension system” covered 45 percent of the urban workforce, mainly employees at state- and collectively owned enterprises. Although the government has begun to extend pension coverage to the private sector, participation remains minimal. A separate and more generous pension system for civil servants covers another 10 percent of the urban workforce. Rural workers are excluded from the basic pension system, although 11 percent participate in a small and voluntary rural pension system. All told, just 25 percent of China’s total workforce, urban and rural, have any pension provision at all. (See Figures 9 and 10.) By and large, government health insurance is limited to the same privileged groups, although overall coverage rates are somewhat higher than for pensions.

The whole report is 40 pages long and delves into many aspects of population aging, pension systems, tax rates, and other demographic trends in China including the rising male-to-female sex ratio. That rising male-to-female sex ratio will make China's elderly care problem even more difficult. The daughters-in-law provide most elderly care in China. But elders whose son(s) can find no wife will have no daughter-in-law to help care for them. At the same time, the movement of younger workers from the rural areas to the cities is separating sons and daughters from their aging parents.

Absent a functioning nationwide pension program, unforgiving arithmetic suggests there may be something approaching a one-to-one ratio emerging between elderly parents and the children obliged to support them. Even worse, from the perspective of a Confucian culture, a sizable fraction — perhaps nearly one-fourth — of these older Chinese will have no living son on whom to rely for sustenance. One need not be a novelist to imagine the intense social tensions such conditions could engender (to say nothing of the personal and humanitarian tragedies).

Second, and no less important, there is no particular reason to expect that older people in China will be able to make the same sort of contributions to economic life as their counterparts in Japan. In low-income economies, the daily demands of ordinary work are more arduous than in rich countries: The employment structure is weighted toward categories more likely to require intense manual labor, and even ostensibly non-manual positions may require considerable physical stamina. According to official Chinese statistics, nearly half of the country’s current labor force toils in the fields, and another fifth is employed in mining and quarrying, manufacturing, construction, or transport — occupations generally not favoring the frail. Even with continuing structural transformations, regular work in 2025 is sure to be much more strenuous in China than in Japan. Moreover, China’s older population may not be as hardy as peers from affluent societies — people likely to have been better fed, housed, and doctored than China’s elderly throughout the course of their lives.

The sex ratio trend in China may well pose a far bigger problem for the rest of the world than the aging population trend.

In a new book, Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population (MIT Press), Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer warn that the spread of sex selection is giving rise to a generation of restless young men who will not find mates. History, biology, and sociology all suggest that these "surplus males" will generate high levels of crime and social disorder, the authors say. Even worse, they continue, is the possibility that the governments of India and China will build up huge armies in order to provide a safety valve for the young men's aggressive energies.

"In 2020 it may seem to China that it would be worth it to have a very bloody battle in which a lot of their young men could die in some glorious cause," says Ms. Hudson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.


Bare Branches offers some disheartening numbers: In 1993 and 1994, more than 121 boys were born in China for every 100 baby girls. (The normal ratio at birth is around 105; for reasons debated among biologists, humans seem naturally to churn out slightly more boys than girls.) In India during the period 1996 to 1998, the birth ratio was 111 to 100; in Taiwan in 2000, it was 109.5. In 1990 a town near New Delhi reported a sex ratio at birth of 156.

Valerie Hudson argues that the shortage of females is not going to self-correct because the females and their parents can not leverage the scarcity of the females for self-benefit and so there is no market incentive to have more female children. If certain free-market Ph.D. economists of my acquaintance (and the rest of you as well) have read this far do you have any comments to offer on this point?

Given the imbalance in the sex ratio in China consider this question: Would China be more peaceful internally and less of a threat to the rest of the world if it has high marriage rates with lasting marriages and high sexual fidelity? Or would China be less of a problem if a sizable fraction of Chinese women never married or did not stay married? Consider the extremes. If all women marry at a young age, stay married, and remain sexually faithful to their husbands then any man who can't find a wife will never have a lover or wife. A society of high marital fidelity would make most male losers in the marriage sweepstakes permanent losers. This will create a group of men who are frustrated, bitter, and angry. But if the limited supply of women engage in a succession of relationships more men will have a chance of having a lover or wife at least part of the time. Would that make the society more peaceful and lower crime rates?

The answer to this question is not obvious to me. On the one hand, a society in which women are constantly shifting between relationships may seem to allow more men to be winners. But it would also cause men to continuously compete for women. In a society with the vast bulk of women paired up permanently to one man some men will come to know that they are permanent losers those men might resign themselves and become passive and peaceful in defeat. Or will they? Will they stay ultra-competitive for decades because they don't know whether they might eventually win a woman?

Some argue we do not have to worry about China as a military power because an aging population is not a militarily vigorous one. But if rejuvenation therapies restore the youthful vitality to China's population even as China's sex ratio continues to be lopsided then a wealthier, more youthful China with a high ratio of males to females could become militarily aggressive. Advances in medical science could therefore produce a more dangerous China. On the other hand, Chinese people faced with the prospect of much longer lives might become opposed to aggressive military moves because they have too many future years of life to lose in a war.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 April 28 02:48 PM  Trends Demographic

Yaro said at April 28, 2004 3:35 PM:

Never bet a Sicilian when death is on the line. Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha.....

Spoons said at April 28, 2004 4:47 PM:

"In 1993 and 1994, more than 121 boys were born in China for every 100 baby girls."


The girls were born. And then they were murdered.

Randall Parker said at April 28, 2004 5:25 PM:

Spoons, They use ultrasound to detect the sex and then selectively abort.

Spoons said at April 28, 2004 6:47 PM:

That is a factor, but most Chinese do not have access to that sort of technology. Outside of urban areas, female infanticide is rampant.

Randall Parker said at April 28, 2004 6:54 PM:

Spoons, Ultrasound machines have spread even out to the rural towns in India and China.

Nobody Important said at April 28, 2004 7:11 PM:
A society of high marital fidelity would make most male losers in the marriage sweepstakes permanent losers. This will create a group of men who are frustrated, bitter, and angry.

What's the male:female ratio in the Arab world? And does the institution of polygamy significantly affect the ratio of available females. And by extension, the number of "men who are frustrated, bitter, and angry?"

superfly said at April 28, 2004 7:21 PM:

following up on Nobody Important, this article: http://www.spectator.org/util/print.asp?art_id=6416#

argues that islamic cultures can't be democratic because of polygamy:

"Islamic cultures are different. Except for Turkey, the most fragilely Westernized Islamic nation, there has never been a successful democracy in the Moslem world. Islamic cultures haven't even achieved reproductive equality, which is something that Western society has had since the Greeks.

What is "reproductive equality"? It revolves around that core value of Western culture -- monogamy -- as opposed to that old "heathen" custom, polygamy.

Islam is the only major world religion that sanctions polygamy. Mohammad allowed his followers to have four wives (the same number he had). About 12 percent of marriages in Moslem countries are polygamous. This is not as bad as East and West Africa, where successful men often take more than a hundred wives and where almost 30 percent of marriages can be polygamous. But the solid core of polygamy at the heart of Islamic culture is enough to produce its menacing social effects.

What are those effects? Do the math. Into every society is born approximately the same number of boys and girls. If they pair off in monogamous fashion, then each one will have a mate -- "a girl for every boy and a boy for every girl." In polygamous societies this does not occur. When successful men can accumulate more than one wife, that means some other man gets none. As a result, the unavoidable outcome is a hard-core residue of unattached men who have little or no prospect of achieving a family life.

The inevitable outcome is that competition among males becomes much more fierce and intense. Mating is an all-or-nothing proposition. Women become a scarce resource that must be hoarded and veiled and banned from public places so they cannot drift away through spontaneous romances. Men who are denied access to these hoarded women have only one option -- they can band together and try to fight their way into the seats of power."

Randall Parker said at April 28, 2004 7:26 PM:

Male:female ratio in Arab countries: I do not know.

Polygamy's effect on Arab cultures: Well, it just so happens I've blogged on that one. See the second update on this post High Costs And Dismal Prospects In Iraq: How To Derive Benefit? and see the quote from William Tucker. Tucker's explanation at least partially explains Steve Sailer's observation that one reason democracy has poor prospects in Arab countries is their emphasis on dominance and submission in relationships. Also see my quote of Steve in the post Low Per Capita Income Countries Never Remain Democracies.

A shortage of females in China may well make the odds for democracy lower there because that shortage will drive the culture toward one more oriented toward submission and dominance.

Hei Lun Chan said at April 29, 2004 9:08 AM:

Wouldn't the simple solution be to end the one-child policy? Maybe I'm asking for too much here.

Engineer-Poet said at April 29, 2004 3:04 PM:

Mr. Hei,

That's all well and good, but a boy who's 15 years old now, urbanized and in need of a spouse who is a second income earner isn't going to be helped by a reversal of the one-child policy tomorrow.  Any girls born 9 months from today is going to lack the capability and education required to fill that role for at least 18-20 years, by which time that boy will be at least 34.  If larger families become the norm again and sex selection goes by the wayside, it will take 20 years to give China relief from this phenomenon.

Working against an end to a de facto one-child policy is the expense of raising children.  As children require more time and more education to become merely self-sufficient (let alone successful), parents will continue to limit their family size even if no legal limits exist (see Germany, Italy and Spain for examples).  So long as the Confucian demand for a son persists, small families will continue this problem no matter what factor produces them.

froth said at April 29, 2004 6:39 PM:

Look on the bright side, you gloomsters! Peer ahead to the next generation or two and see the offspring of (drum roll) only the top 70% of males (rated -- purely mathematically -- on Darwinian fitness). The male-to-female ratio is going to increase China's (and India's, and etc.'s) general IQ, ability to make money, social skills, good looks, or some other basket of genetic predispositions or traits that wins a wife (or two). Competiion works. It'll work here, too.

Of course, the losers will probably retain the gloomy outlook. I say we here in the US and Europe look ahead to this upcoming competition and introduce polygamy. Wait, we already have it, but it's "serial polygamy." Those who succeed, or otherwise are genetically well-endowed, have second wives who are young enough to have the remarried men's second families.

No offence to anybody, but demographics is just mathematics, and it is destiny.

Randall Parker said at April 29, 2004 7:38 PM:

Froth, I've previously blogged on how I think the high male-female sex ratio is going to select for higher IQ. See my post Human Natural Selection In Taiwan.

Polygamy will undermine the foundations of liberal democracy. The fierceness of the competition for a limited number of females will produce the sort of despotic societies we see in the Middle East. Kiss good bye your Hayekian society. It is not compatible with the degree of drive for dominance that polygamy will cause.

Froth said at April 29, 2004 10:36 PM:

Well, I've returned from the Wayback Machine, Mr. Peabody, and your post and follow-on comments in the Archives of the Future are bang on. You miss my point, however, that polygamy is already here, albeit serial polygamy. And although it's been a few years since I was in the fray, competition is indeed fierce for the prize hotties. It's more in the nature of back-stabby bitchy than it is a threat to liberal democracy, though. I think a Hayekian society can tolerate even fierce competion.

Randall Parker said at April 29, 2004 11:32 PM:

Froth, I agree that serial polygamy is happening. I agree it must be exerting some sort of selective pressure. I'd like to see some data on what percentage of males and females are reproducing. My guess is that, yes, a larger fraction of females than males are reproducing in each generation. But my guess is that the level of unavailability of females for males is much worse in Muslim societies than in Western societies. We aren't experiencing the level of pressure to push toward a "winner take all" ethos that the Muslims are experiencing. Plus, they've experiencing their higher level for a much longer time.

Randall Parker said at April 29, 2004 11:56 PM:

Froth, On a related note see this post by Freidrich von Blowhard on the more intense competition between males than between females for probably most or all of human evolutionary history. The relative difference in reproductive success was probably less in some regions and time periods. My guess is that Christianity reduced the size of the gap and by doing so helped make liberal democracy and capitalism possible.

Froth said at April 30, 2004 5:26 PM:

I think Freidrich needs to get out more. Competition among women is very intense. There is a great difference in the rules of their game, though. Males' Darwinian goal includes siring numerous offspring, while females' Darwinian goal is to rear as many of her offspring as possible to adulthood. It's a defensive strategy, centered on establishing rank within a pecking order and tight relations with a dominant male. All of that is like building the nest. Choosing fathers for the eggs in that nest is really quite a separate, yet equally important, process.

This John Maynard Smith (RIP) -type game theoretical evolutionary stuff is only becoming more interesting and more complex with the new molecular genetic tools. We know animals as diverse as horses, lions, ants, and prairie dogs supposedly cede most reproductive rights to top individuals. But we're finding that being an alpha male territory-wise doesn't translate to reproductive success. See Nicholas Davies' studies of supposedly monogamous common house sparrows (dunnocks). DNA fingerprinting showed that an alpha male fathered only 45-50 of the offspring.

The end result is that while Jack Welch makes good husband material, the Italian chauffeur makes for good Italian lessons.

jey said at May 28, 2004 12:33 AM:

how much do you know about china?
i wonder
really wonder...

Peter said at June 3, 2004 6:45 AM:

While polygamy, with the female as the center linchpin, may help resolve China's problems, it would require a major cultural shift for acceptance.

The easier, and more likely, solution would be a low-level and sustained border war that would use up the surplus males for the relatively low cost of AK-47's and ammunition. The warnings in Valerie M. Hudson's and Andrea M. den Boer's book, "Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population" (MIT Press), should not go unheeded.

Rusty Shackleford said at July 27, 2004 6:34 PM:

That happened in 1979 when the Red China invaded Vietnam, and the battle hardened NVA beat them back. Today the result might be more even. There aren't as many troops experienced in combat either fighting the Americans or who fought in Cambodia (Vietnam's Vietnam).

Malvrin said at October 11, 2004 8:22 AM:

The absolute dominion of the women in China, India, N.Korea, Ceylon, Taiwan, etc.!
Within 20 years from now there will be two men for every woman !!!! Well, very well. Also in USA, in Europe everywhere, world wise!
The women command and several millions of men will be reduced to slavery.
Polygamy? Welcome but for the women: 1 woman -> 2 men (slave)
In my novel, an international bestseller coming soon, the captain Malvrin, a cruel Caribbean pirate, was submitted by two terrible girls, the blonde irish Jenny and the brunette spanish Manuela and he was imprisoned by a tribe of Amazons.
Everybody must read my masterpiece because it is necessary in order to understand the next life reality.
Malvrin is the best.

Tanisha said at October 14, 2004 5:05 PM:

I would like to know some positive and negative issues that elderly women in China face each day.

Lucky said at June 16, 2005 3:55 PM:

Just more reasons why I am happy to be a happily married American man. I am not a very bright guy but from what understand the three major religions on this backward little planet all worship the same God. If this is true the word he has delivered to us rather it s the Bible or the Holy Qur'an must be the same. Interpretation are most certainly different for every country, religion or person. So I guess I can only talk about my interpretation of the New Testament. To me its so clear that women are to be honored; protected as the weaker vessel; loved as Jesus loved the church; loved as we love ours own flesh; respected for their wisdom and loving ways. There will most defiantly be problems but in all relationships that endure time, endure problem. It is my opinion that it is no accident that Jesus appeared to a women first after he rose form the dead. This action speaks volumes and how this could be over looked by any country, religion or person is so far beyond me. Too take your own child's life to serve some antiquated cultural belief or even worse to self-serve a ego or shame based notion that a son is better than daughter, as I said it is far beyond me. I will not judge my bothers as I do not understand their culture and it is simply not my job. I will however pray for their slaughtered daughters and their sons that will never know a women's touch or how women enhances our lives and makes us better men.

dylath leen said at October 24, 2005 3:53 PM:

In China, I don`t know. But perhaps in India the things could turn for better after some years; for there is not the Confucian superstition loving sons and hating girs, but an economic distortion: if you want your daughter to get married, you have to pay a lot. Maybe, when in the village will be 200 boys and only 120 girs, the situation will change, and boys' parents will have to rethink their demands, slowly eliminating the anomaly. ?

duco said at September 8, 2006 9:38 PM:

More girls than boys are being born in europe and north america right now.
researchers say that this is due to the fact that the mother is less likely to carry a girl when she is living with a man.
Could this be because of the amount of sex, hormones, etc?
This will upset your whole reasoning logic.
In Europe and North America there is an increase in single mom's and they are mainly having girls.
Likely polygynic marriages produce more daughters than sons also, because the amount of sex changes the hormones in the body and since many women share one man, each woman is getting less, and will be more likely to carry a daughter.

macrofage said at September 19, 2006 5:27 PM:

so duco, are you saying that polygamous relationships actually produce more women?

grthinker said at June 1, 2008 4:43 PM:

Hmm, I scaned the comments, and don't see anything about homosexuality? I can remember assertions about men sexualizing telephone poles, and an article about population pressures driving rats to homosexuality. We're certainly seeing some major (well, they seem major, anyway) shifts along these lines here. We are all very much creatures of our appetites, perhaps these unusual pressures will...hey, I'm 67, so I'll probably miss most of the action here.

Jess said at September 12, 2011 8:19 PM:

As China becomes richer this will be less of a problem because they will basically "import" women.

There are already lots of South East Asian women going to China to find husbands.

Also, "One feature of the Russian-Chinese relationship seemed especially telling: Cross-border marriages are overwhelmingly between Chinese men and Russian women. Much of this has to do with demographics—Russia has a surplus of women, while China has too many men."

From: slate.com/id/2239793/entry/2239797

Bob Foster said at October 6, 2015 10:55 AM:

As pro-choice and pro-gaia, I am deeply saddened by China's insistence in allowing some more children to be born. Indeed, the repression they used when forcing abortions on women was a good thing. Not only did it keep the citizenry inline and kill more babies, it also helped mother gaia. I have a deep affection for mother gaia. I have been known to fly around the world on Air Force One, so I can land in many far and exotic lands and speak kindly to her. As well, the exhaust spit out by my jet goes up into the sky to make more stars to shine down brightly upon mother gaia at night. But, enough with the rambling and back to the point at hand: I am disheartened by the fact that China has taken a step away from their totalitarian rule with this decision.
They point to the gender gap and say it is cause for alarm. I disagree. They should implement forced gay marriage for any man who is 30 or over and not married. Not only will it send a signal of tolerance and acceptance around the world, but people will have less to fight over as they have new spouses of the best variety: government forced. They may resist the call of the intimate man dance, but deep down, it is an accepted truth that the government can force anyone to do anything. China, take these words to heart and understand there are better ways forward, a path laid ahead with dead babies and gay marriage.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©