China Is Desperate to Boost Its Low Birth Rates. It May Have to Accept the New Normal

An empty children’s swingset in Qingdao, China. Credit - Getty Images

China’s fertility rate hit a record low last year, according to a new estimate reported by state-backed media earlier this week. The report cited China’s Population and Development Research Center, which found that in 2022, each woman in the world’s second largest economy would, on average, give birth to 1.09 babies—well short of the “replacement fertility rate” for developed countries of 2.1, at which a stable population is maintained, and an even farther cry from China’s peak fertility rate of 7.5 60 years ago.

But it doesn’t come as a surprise for Chinese authorities, who, facing the drastic economic consequences of an aging and shrinking population, have in the last several years been taking a number of measures to try to boost plummeting birth rates—from reversing the decadeslong one-child policy meant to stem overpopulation to providing cash incentives to have more children. But experts warn that all the attention devoted to pushing young people to conceive could be futile and that efforts may be better spent maintaining and adapting to this new normal.

Demographers in the early 2000s coined the “low-fertility trap,” hypothesizing that a series of self-reinforcing economic and social mechanisms make it increasingly difficult to raise the fertility rate once it dips below a certain threshold. The academics posited that lower fertility results in increased individual aspirations for personal consumption but at the same time it also results in an aging population and less job creation—and thus greater pessimism about the economic future—which in turn disincentivizes having more children. Moreover, as the average family size grows smaller and smaller generation after generation, the social norm of an ideal family size shrinks, too. These forces together lead to a persistent “downward spiral” for the fertility rate that can be impossible to reverse.

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China’s not the only country in the region or the world facing this kind of demographic crisis. Fertility rates across developed nations globally have almost uniformly dropped over the last few decades. China’s neighbors Japan and South Korea have among the lowest, and policymakers there have invested billions of dollars and pondered uniquely targeted policies, respectively, to try—so far unsuccessfully—to get young people to have more children.

Ironically, Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social science at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, tells TIME, China may have “accidentally put itself in this low-fertility trap” through its family planning policies of the last several decades, encouraging later marriages and limiting childbirth. Now, China faces a younger generation increasingly reluctant to marry or to have kids.

That’s left the country with a disproportionately older population in need of social services unable to be supported by a shrinking working-age population. But rather than just trying to mitigate the cause by relentlessly pushing youth to have children when they’re disillusioned about their own economic futures, it may be time to focus on addressing the resultant problems directly. Even if China’s current baby-making policies were to succeed, Gietel-Basten says, its economic effects wouldn’t be felt anyway for another two decades—when the children join the labor force and when China’s concerns may be completely different from what they are today.

So what should China be focusing on?

“It would be overly idealistic if we assume the fertility rate can return to a high level,” Adam Cheung, an associate professor of sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University, tells TIME. But that doesn’t mean, he says, that Beijing should abandon all its programs aimed at incentivizing child birth. “We must adopt policies to prevent it [from falling] further.”

Still, China’s policies should be more holistic, Cheung says. The country has made some investments in automation to increase economic productivity, but not enough. Immigration is another point for improvement, he adds, though China has been resistant to welcoming more immigrants for a number of reasons.

“Overcoming challenges related to multiculturalism, openness, and geopolitical tensions will be essential for China's success in competing for global talent,” Cheung says. “By addressing these factors, China can position itself favorably to navigate the demographic challenges and ensure future economic growth.”

China is reportedly expected to raise its retirement age, which for decades has been 60 for men and as low as 50 for many women, later this year, prompting outcry. For Gietel-Basten, this should be promoted as more than just a stop-gap economic necessity to address the shrinking workforce and ballooning retiree cohort draining social services, and it needs to be coupled with social policy.

Rather than “forcing people to work,” he says, “it can be built around what you would like to do, about what you can contribute to society, into the economy, through your skills.” But that requires adequate eldercare support to enable older citizens to remain as productive members of society for longer.

Decades of a one-child policy, Gietel-Basten says, led to a 4-2-1 problem, in which a sole young adult must become the breadwinner for not only his two parents but also his four grandparents. Currently, China’s social policy skews towards pushing the breadwinner to have children, adding more burden to the provider. Greater support directed toward the four grandparent-dependents, on the other hand, would ease the quality of life of the youngest generation and may even allow them to have more babies as they wish. “Ironically,” Gietal-Basten says, “it may well be [that] investing in decent eldercare could increase the fertility rate.”

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