After four extraordinary decades in which China’s population has swelled from 660 million to 1.4 billion, its population is on track to turn down this year, for the first time since the great famine of 1959-1961.

The Conversation | May 2022

The world’s largest nation by population is starting to shrink.

In 2021 China’s population grew by 480,000 – which is a baby sized increase compared to the annual growth rate of around eight million common a decade ago.

For international comparison, China’s fertility rate (births per woman) was just 1.15 in 2021 compared to 1.6 in Australia and the US, and 1.3 in Japan which has been aging for decades now. In Nigeria the average births per woman is 5.2. The continent of South America, which in the middle of last century had the world’s highest population growth, is now growing more slowly than Africa, Oceania and Asia.

A loosening of China’s one child policy in 2016 and the introduction of a three-child policy, supported by tax and other incentives, have failed to halt the baby dive.

The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences team predicts an annual average decline of 1.1% after 2021, pushing China’s population down to 587 million in 2100, less than half of what it is today.

The implications are serious: while there are currently 100 working age people supporting every 20 elderly people, by the turn of the century 100 working-age Chinese will have to support as many as 120 elderly Chinese.

And China is far from alone: this phenomenon is in-keeping with the demographic change megatrend which predicts that the world’s population will peak by the end of this century. The combination of people living longer and having fewer children is a global experience, with the exception of Africa.

Additionally, it’s China’s economic heft that makes this an important issue for the rest of the world. Any shift in China’s economic priorities – spending more on pensions and health care, higher wages, will inevitably change what it imports, produces and exports. As the world’s single biggest trading partner, every other nation in the world will have to adjust to China’s policy settings.

Megatrends watch: demographic change


This update is part of our Megatrends Watch series, which tracks developments that inform our six global megatrends....

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