Thousands of millions of migrant workers travel back to their hometown by trains for Lunar New Year from Shenzhen city. Photo: Asia Times/Lin Wanxia
Many Chinese cities are grappling with aging populations as over-65s outnumber younger groups. Photo: Asia Times/Lin Wanxia

Chinese state media has been portraying the demographic picture presented by the latest nationwide headcount as “rosy and morale-boosting.”

This is despite census data backing up the perception that fewer people in the world’s most populous nation prepare to procreate despite the government’s efforts. 

State news agency Xinhua has argued that most Chinese are “in the prime of their lives and career” and full of “optimism and drive” since the nation’s median age was 38 in 2020.

Xinhua, nonetheless, stopped short of mentioning key data such as the ultra-low gross fertility rate of 1.3 last year. Instead, it talked up the untapped potential and “population dividend” of the elderly, despite their fast-swelling numbers.

China had 880 million residents aged between 16 and 59 in 2020, 40 million fewer than a decade ago, but the share of those aged 60 or above has jumped to 18.7%, or 260 million.

Still, Xinhua noted in a circular on Thursday that China’s demographic dependency ratio the ratio of the numbers of people aged under 15 and aged 65 or above per 1,000 people aged between 15 and 64 stood at 45.9%. Thus it said the burden of supporting the under-aged and senior citizens weighed less heavily on China’s working class than their peers across the West. 

This notion contradicts the warning from a condensed and partially redacted report about the census viewed by Asia Times that the proportion of elderly people will continue to rise while that of youngsters is declining.

The report’s conclusion is that China may start to experience an inverted population pyramid with more seniors than youngsters in the next 15 years. 

Discussion is rife among some scholars about when China will have more seniors aged 60 than newborns and teens as they crunch the census data. The loudest voice is from Liang Jianzhang, a professor with the Peking University’s (PKU) Guanghua School of Management.

He predicts that the date will come as early as 2028 if Beijing continues to sit on its hands and watch its population grey further. 

Also, an earlier report by the National Statistics Bureau (NSB) said that in 2020 China had 285 million migrant workers, a term that refers to those from rural areas working in urban centers. Their size shrank by 5.17 million from a year earlier.

The report noted that most employers in the private sector, while vying to lure young job seekers, still pension off those reaching 60 and turn away applicants older than 35. 

Ning Jizhe, China’s top statistician, says more than half of China’s senior citizens are aged between 60 and 69. Photo: Xinhua

Ning Jizhe, NSB’s director, sought to highlight the “overlooked potential and productivity” of China’s “young seniors” at Wednesday’s press briefing about the census data. He said those aged between 60 and 69 accounted for 55.83% of China’s elderly group. 

“Most of these ‘young seniors,’ or silver-age persons who have just retired, still possess the experience, wisdom and insight gained from their work and this huge pool of human capital is waiting to be better tapped to complement the labor force,” said Ning.

He said quite a number of people leaving jobs upon reaching 60 wished to take up new employment such as part-time work or even start their own businesses. 

Yuan Xin, a deputy president of the China Population Association, an affiliate entity of the National Health Commission, said policy initiatives being rolled out to postpone and unify retirement ages for both sexes to 65 would help offset the impact of China’s dropping birth rate and shrinking working class.

Yuan, also a demographer with the Tianjin-based Nankai University, said an aging population would lower the labor force participation rate and productivity but China had not seen a sharp increase in its over-70 populace in the past ten years. Thus, those silver-age people should be viewed as a new labor supply rather than a “liability draining welfare and pensions.” 

Eric Mer, an associate professor with the PKU’s School of Governance, told Asia Times that since the cohort of Chinese leaders in senior ages had long been burgeoning, when state-level leaders would only bow out at the age of 70 or over, the government, Communist Party organs and the sprawling state-owned enterprises all had retention arrangements for retiring employees to stay on.

The scholar said Beijing should offer more incentives for the private sector to follow suit, such as considering retention allowances, flexible working hours and halving the salary tax rate for people aged 60 and above. 

He said despite some backlash from employers when Beijing broached changes to retirement ages last year, it was apparent that asking people to work longer may still be easier than beseeching young couples to raise more babies. The findings of the census, including the worryingly low fertility rate, would justify the move to postpone retirement to use “young seniors” to make up for the shortfall from a smaller labor force.

“If we don’t have enough new supply, then we use what we already have for a longer period. That may be Beijing’s thinking,” said Mer. 

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