[Population Aging to 2030, Day 2, Essay 1 of 2]

China stands on the threshold of a stunning demographic transformation with profound implications for its future prosperity and stability.  For the past three decades, China’s unusually favorable demographics, with a rapidly declining dependency burden and a rapidly rising share of the population in the working years, have helped to propel its spectacular rise in living standards.  Beginning around 2015, however, the demographic climate will change abruptly.  The elderly share of the population, now just 8 percent, will double to 16 percent by 2030, and then triple to 24 percent by 2050—making China an older country than the United States.  Along the way, China’s working-age population will also peak and begin to decline.

The most direct and certain impact of the demographic transformation will be a growing old-age dependency burden.  As China ages, a rising share of total economic resources will have to be transferred from working-age adults to nonworking elders.  In 2010, there were 7.8 Chinese working-age adults available to support each elder.  That ratio is due to fall to 3.8 by 2030 and to 2.4 by 2050, which means that the average burden that must be shouldered by each worker will more than triple.  Much of this burden falls on families today.  But in a rapidly aging and developing China, a larger share is bound to show up in public budgets and higher tax rates.

Figure 1. Proportion of seniors in China and the US, 1950 to 2050.

Even as the old-age dependency burden grows, economic growth will slow.  Over the three decades of the reform era, China’s working-age population has expanded at 2.0 percent per year.  By the 2030s, it will be contracting by 0.7 percent per year.  Contrary to common wisdom, the scope for internal migration to offset slower growth in the working-age population is limited.  Until recently, China was able to boost GDP growth by shifting millions of underemployed workers each year from the non-market rural sector into full-time, low-skilled manufacturing jobs that are integrated with the global economy.  But as China’s industries move up the global value-added scale, a serious mismatch is emerging between the skills of its remaining surplus rural labor and the demands of the jobs being created in the growth sectors of its economy.

Slower economic growth in turn has the potential to trigger social and political crisis.  The incredible speed of China’s development is already straining the economic and social fabric. Urbanization is weakening the extended family while industrialization is degrading the environment.   Worker mobility and turnover are rising and the income gap between the rich and poor is widening.  Social services are spotty and civic authority is strained.  Such stresses, bearable in a youthful society in which incomes are rising rapidly, may become less tolerable in an aging society in which economic growth is slowing.

Figure 2. Average Annual Change in Chinese Working-Age Population Size, by Decade

The rapid aging of China’s population could act as a multiplier on the stresses of rapid modernization.  While today’s developed countries became affluent societies before they became aging societies, China’s age wave will be arriving in a society that is still in the midst of development—and that has not yet had time to put in place the social protections of a modern welfare state.  Less than one-third of China’s workforce is now earning a formal retirement benefit of any kind, public or private.  Despite China’s lofty national savings rate, only a small minority of workers are accumulating sufficient financial assets to support themselves in retirement. The majority may have to fall back on the most traditional form of old-age insurance: children.  But many will have only one child, and among these many will not have a son, who in Confucian culture bears the responsibility of caring for aged parents.  Imagine, in China’s cities, tens of millions of today’s midlife adults maturing by the year 2020 or 2030 into tens of millions of indigent elders who lack pensions, lack access to health care, and lack adequate family support. Or imagine, in China’s countryside, entire towns of demographically stranded elders. Meanwhile, China’s yawning gender imbalance and the enormous bachelor surplus to which it is giving rise will threaten to become another source of social unrest.

China has been “peacefully rising” while its demographics have leaned with economic growth.  But by the 2020s, when China’s age wave arrives in full force, demographic trends may be weakening the twin pillars of the current regime’s legitimacy—rapidly rising living standards and social stability.  It is hard to gauge how great the risk of social and political crisis is, but the Chinese government, with its new mantra of “balanced development” and its increasing alarm about the dangers of the rural-urban income gap, the shredded social safety net, and environmental degradation, appears to be taking it seriously.  Throughout China’s long history, periods of strong central authority and empire building have alternated with periods of social and political chaos.  China’s premature aging may usher in the next turn of the cycle—or, as the regime attempts to avert this outcome, a new authoritarian clampdown.

As it happens, the 2020s is also the decade in which China is expected to displace the United States as the world’s largest economy.  “Power transition” theories of global conflict suggest that this moment could be fraught with danger.  The fact that it coincides with the arrival of China’s potentially destabilizing age wave may make it even more perilous.

Richard Jackson is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he directs the Global Aging Initiative.

[Population Aging to 2030, Day 1, Essay 2 of 2]

Populations in the rich world are aging fast.  Some scholars have argued that this will create a ‘geriatric peace,’ as the traditional great powers will no longer have the financial resources or manpower to contemplate large-scale wars.  Others have argued that population aging will particularly benefit the United States.  Because of immigration, it is claimed, the U.S. will enjoy a younger and faster growing population than either its fellow rich nations, or its main challenger, China.  As Europe and China both age rapidly, the younger U.S. will enjoy a further period of relative world dominance.

I think it is wise to be skeptical of both propositions.  In regard to the geriatric peace, it does seem likely that rich nations will be less inclined to invest in their military capacity.  But this is a problem for the U.S., as it is America’s main alliance partners – Europe in NATO, and Japan and S. Korea in the Far East – that will be reducing their military spending.  This will be a problem, rather than benefit, for the U.S. if America continues to face its main military challenges from disorders in young and populous developing nations (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia).  ‘Boots on the ground’ will be harder to come by from America’s traditional allies in the future.

In addition, it should not be presumed that the U.S advantage in youth and population growth relative to Europe or China will be maintained.  Fertility among US-born Americans is only slightly higher than in Europe; and that advantage has been fueled by immigrants (mainly Hispanic).  Recently, teenage birth rates in America have fallen to an all-time low; this usually implies a long-term decline in fertility as youngsters are deferring child-bearing. Immigration also has been the main source of America’s relatively rapid population growth.   Yet according to a recent PEW research report, net migration to America from Mexico has fallen to zero since the onset of the recession.  In addition, fertility in Mexico is falling fast, and is now lower than that of Hispanics in America.  In coming decades it is likely both that the stream of migration from Latin America, and the fertility of immigrants and their descendants, will fall rapidly, sharply reducing the growth advantage of America.

Finally, it should be noted that America has two further aging challenges that are greater than that of Europe.  First, because the U.S. had a larger baby boom than Europe, it faces a much larger absolute gain in the percentage of elderly.  Where Europe faces an increase of 50% in its over-60 population by 2050, the U.S. faces an increase of 100%.  Europe will suffer from a decline in its under-60 population while the U.S. will retain some growth; hence Europe is more concerned about having enough workers to cover pension funding.  Yet the second factor is crucial – the United States spends a much larger portion of its GDP on health care, and those costs have been rising fast, relative to those in Europe.  As America experiences a huge surge in its elderly population, the difficulties of keeping a lid on health costs will increase; without a major reform, the costs of health care of the elderly in the US will pose as great or greater a limitation on state spending on defense as is found in Europe.  Just one example – the number of those aged over 80 will skyrocket in the U.S. and a significant portion of those (perhaps one-fifth) are likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, requiring expensive nursing care.  The Alzheimer’s foundation estimated that his care alone could cost $1 trillion per year by 2050 if measures are not found to reduce the incidence or cost of Alzheimer’s in the senior population.

These considerations make clear that the U.S. cannot simply be smug about aging and presume it hands security advantages to America.  The number of those that will be 60 or older (perhaps 25% of the population and 33% of all adults by 2030) will be so large, absolutely and proportionately, that they will need to be viewed as a resource, not just an economically inactive and/or dependent group.

There are several ways to respond to America’s and the rich world’s aging in ways to enhance economic and military potential.

First, American should seek to broaden and intensify its military alliances with younger and more populous democratic states – India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, as well as the existing NATO link to Turkey.  These “TIMBI” states all have growing labor forces and populations and will be capable of providing ‘boots on the ground’ for operations in other still younger and fast-growing states where military operations are likely to arise.   Whether through an expansion of NATO into a DATO alliance (Democratic alliance and treaty organization) that is committed to provide manpower to pro-democracy military actions, or through separate but parallel organizations, the U.S. needs to have close working partnerships with countries who will fill in the gaps left by the decline in military and fiscal resources of its traditional European and Far East allies.

Second, the use of healthy seniors in the civilian labor force must be encouraged and facilitated, through phased retirement and later full retirement ages.  This will reduce the dependency burden of resourcing retirement and health care for workers outside of the labor force, freeing government resources to sustain military spending where needed.

Third, the skills and experience of seniors should be valued and put to use.  Seniors, not just youngsters, should be preferred recruits for the Peace Corps, as the managerial and technical skills of senior Americans will be in great demand and of substantial value in helping developing countries train their own professional, technical, educational, legal, and managerial ranks.  America risks losing a huge repository of skills and experience when the baby boomers retire; some of this should be retained in the workplace in the US, but some should also be deployed on behalf of the US abroad.  Just as the Peace Corps built bridges and informal support for the U.S. around the world for an earlier generation, the same could be done through drawing on U.S. senior workers for a new wave of U.S. support for development initiatives.

Jack Goldstone is the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel, Jr. Professor of Public Policy in theSchool of Public Policy at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA.