A Revolution Is Coming for China’s Families
China is so f-cked. Too many seniors and not enough younger workers to support their continued care and grow the economy at the same time. Many demographers thinks China's population may be cut in half in the next 30 years as the aging population dies off.
A Revolution Is Coming for China’s Families
By 2050 living parents and in-laws will outnumber children for middle-aged Chinese men and women.
By Nicholas Eberstadt and Ashton Verdery, WSJ
March 9, 2023 12:58 pm ET
Population trends in China aren’t cooperating with Xi Jinping’s ambitions. The “China Dream”—the Communist Party’s vision of national prosperity and international power—faces stiff and strengthening demographic headwinds.
China’s working-age manpower is in steep decline. The country is rapidly graying, and the largely dependent 65-plus population is soaring. In January Beijing announced that the country’s total population shrank in 2022—a decade earlier than Western demographers had been forecasting as recently as 2019.
Yet one rapidly approaching demographic problem has flown under Beijing’s radar: the crisis of the Chinese family, the foundation of Chinese society and civilization.
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The Chinese family is about to undergo a radical and historically unprecedented transition. Extended kinship networks will atrophy nationwide, and the widespread experience of close blood relatives will disappear altogether for many. This is a delayed but inescapable consequence of China’s birth trends from the era of the notorious one-child policy (1980-2015). The withering of the Chinese family will make for new and unfamiliar problems, both for China’s people and its state. Policy makers in China and abroad have scarcely begun to think about the ramifications.
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Beijing thus far has ignored this looming crisis because planners don’t prepare for things they don’t track. Officials don’t regard data on the family as relevant to statecraft or security. So statistics tally males and females—not uncles, sisters, cousins, widows.
Yet it is possible to track the changing contours of the Chinese family, and in a new report we do so. We estimate past patterns and project trends through demographic modeling—simulations replicating China’s available population numbers—while “building” family trees consistent with those figures. We can approximate nationwide changes in China’s extended family networks in the past with reasonable validity and describe what lies ahead with fair confidence.
Some of our findings weren’t only unexpected but counterintuitive. It seems, for example, that we are only now living through the era of “peak kin” in China. In terms of sheer numbers, Chinese networks of blood relatives were never nearly as thick as at the start of the 21st century.
Because of dramatic postwar improvements in health and mortality, men and women in their 40s today have on average five times as many living cousins as in 1960. China’s “kin explosion” may be an important, heretofore unobserved factor in China’s remarkable economic performance since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.
But China is now on the cusp of a severe and unavoidable “kin crash,” driven by prolonged subreplacement fertility. The implosion of consanguineous family networks, by our reckoning, means that China’s rising generations will likely have fewer living relatives than ever before in Chinese history.
A “kin famine” will thus unfold unforgivingly over the next 30 years—starting now. As it intensifies, the Chinese family—the most important institution protecting Chinese people against adversity in bad times and helping them seize opportunity in good times—will increasingly falter in both these crucial functions.
By a grim twist of fate, China’s withering of the family is set to collide with a tsunami of new social need from the country’s huge elderly population, whose ranks will more than double between 2020 and 2050. Our simulations depict a fateful inversion within the nuclear family. By 2050 living parents and in-laws will outnumber children for middle-aged Chinese men and women. Thus exigency may overturn basic familial arrangements that have long been taken for granted. The focus of the family in China will necessarily turn from the rearing of the young to the care of the old.
The reliability and durability of familial bonds of duty will be an increasingly critical question—perhaps even a matter of life and death for many, including frail and impecunious elders in the Chinese hinterlands. Owing to the surfeit of baby boys under the one-child policy and declining cohort sizes, growing numbers of men in decades ahead will enter old age without spouses or children—the traditional sources of support for the elderly. By our projections, by 2050, 18% of China’s men in their 60s will have no living descendants, twice the fraction today. Absent a massive expansion of Chinese social-welfare provisions over the next few decades, who will look after these unfortunates?
Even from afar, the economic arithmetic doesn’t look favorable. Still worse than the macroeconomic implications of old-age dependency may be the effect of China’s family crisis on the so-called micro-foundations of the national economy—the little things that make markets work.
Since earliest recorded history, China’s guanxi networks, a distinctive form of special relationships and professional connections, have helped get business done by reducing uncertainty and transaction costs. The proliferation of blood relatives was likely a powerful stimulant for growth during the era of China’s phenomenal upswing. In a similar fashion, the kin dearth may prove an economic depressant well beyond what current “head count” projections suggest.
The shrinking, aging, “defamilizing” China of 2050 sounds like a grim and downbeat place. Pessimistic expectations could shape popular behavior in myriad ways, including some we may not yet imagine.
China’s coming family revolution could easily conduce to a rise in personal risk aversion. Risk aversion may in turn dampen mobility, including migration. Migration is a risky act that requires knowledge of opportunities and trusted people who can help obtain them. Without the ability to stay on a cousin’s couch, so to speak, migration will become riskier, harder, and, almost certainly, rarer. Less migration means less urbanization, which means less growth—and possibly still more pessimism and risk aversion.
The change in Chinese family structure also promises political reverberations. If the waning of the family requires China to build a huge social welfare state over the coming generation, as we surmise it will, Beijing would have that much less wherewithal for influencing events abroad through economic diplomacy and defense policy.
Further, our simulations suggest that by 2050 at least half of China’s overall pool of male military-age manpower will be made up of only children. Any encounter by China’s security forces involving significant loss of life will presage lineage extinction for many Chinese families.
Autocracies are typically tolerant of casualties—but maybe not in the only-child China of today and the decades ahead.
Failure to contemplate the implications of the coming changes in Chinese family structure could prove a costly blind spot for the Communist Party. Blind spots expose governments to the risk of strategic surprise. The consequences of social, economic and political risks tend to be greatest when states aren’t prepared for them.
Mr. Eberstadt is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Verdery is a professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University. They are co-authors of “China’s Revolution in Family Structure,” a new report from AEI.